Like digging a foxhole or a grave, starting a project is always the hardest part. Film in particular, all of the elements have to be present for the brief moments preceding, during, or shortly after the opening credits if the rest of the film is going to fly. Even the worst films can fool me for a bit if the opening scene is on-target.
Burn After Reading is a spy film that is not a spy film; moreover, it is a comedy that is not a comedy (not in the way that Intolerable Cruelty wasn't a comedy... more in that O Brother, Where Art Thou? was The Odyssey but in more ways was not The Odyssey). As such, Burn After Reading is tough to get into and even tougher to comment on.
A second viewing helps tremendously.
It's not that I didn't enjoy the film the first time around. I liked it. I also thought it was... weird. Weird beyond proper description. Weird even for the Joel and Ethan Coen. The rhythm of their films are on a wavelength that will bend and pulse whether a passenger is onboard or not. Burn's opening scenes are particularly difficult to attune to, not because they don't work, but because they take off and don't wait for my ass to board the train.
Making this even more challenging is the score. My god the score. Scenes are given an incredible amount of emphasis, with intensity matching the stomping drum beats and siren calls in The Dark Knight. It is so goddamn inappropriate that it deserves its own paragraph in this review. The fucking score... holy moly...
Most of the film's elements can be matched to the Coens' previous work -- the dialogue in particular is as quotable as ever -- but can the film as whole? I'm not sure. Burn After Reading isn't like Miller's Crossing and doesn't fold over itself repeatedly, nor does it walk through the minute details that make up the destruction of the characters' lives, like Fargo. It isn't as wild as Raising Arizona and it isn't as subtle as The Big Lebowski.
The film offers the information, quickly, and moves on. This happens, that happens, these people die, the film is over. In that sense, I suppose it is most similar to No Country For Old Men, in that it is so close to its theme that the film is an example of it. Shit just happens, so get over it.
While Burn After Reading falls far short of reaching that level of greatness, it is good. It is genuinely funny and highly unpredictable. And after a second viewing, I can now say for certain that I have regained my trust in the Coen Brothers' filmmaking abilities. I can't wait for the next one.