When “Burn After Reading” opens on Sept. 12, it will benefit from the reputation of the Coen brothers, who have followers who love everything from “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski” to “Blood Simple” and “No Country For Old Men.” It will benefit from a lineup of actors including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich.
But it will also benefit from one of the best-made trailers in recent years.
The “Burn After Reading” trailer is funny and full of energy, and while the early reviews of the movie are decidedly mixed, it’s hard to argue with the two minutes they’re using to promote it. So why does it work so well?
First, it follows one of the most important and most difficult rules that many know but few can navigate: explain the premise; don’t give everything away. For an example of an unsuccessful trailer that hands over entirely too much plot, consider the trailer for the recent Luke Wilson film, “Henry Poole Is Here.”
In the “Henry Poole” trailer, the premise is revealed: An image of Jesus — maybe — appears on a side of a cynical man’s house. But beyond that, the entire structure of the story is explained. The romance with his neighbor, his resistance to the unexplained, the way his faith is restored, the role of a lovable moppet who doesn’t speak, and the burden of the crowds who come to view the image. What is clearly meant as a climactic “Oh my goodness!” moment — the moppet touches the wall and regains her speech with a whispered word to her mother — is right there.
You’ve seen it now, and it’s hard not to walk away confident that you could describe the entire movie, from plot to characterizations to tone, with about 90 percent accuracy.
Similarly, consider the trailer for the upcoming thriller “Lakeview Terrace,” starring Samuel L. Jackson as a sadistic cop terrorizing the young couple next door. A movie like this depends for the development of tension on an escalating series of events — Jackson’s behavior is a little odd, then more odd and aggressive, then menacing. But the problem is that the trailer blows most of these events right off the bat. We are shown the way the path to psychotic starts, we are shown several of the steps along the way, and we are shown where it ends. It’s simply far too much detail.
What makes the “Burn After Reading” trailer work is that it conveys the feel of the movie without handing over the blueprints. Having seen it, you can see the vague outline of the story, which is that Brad Pitt winds up with some kind of classified information that belongs to John Malkovich, who is presumably a highly placed spy type. Pitt is working with Frances McDormand. How, exactly, Swinton and Clooney fit in isn’t even really clear, but there they are.
But beyond that, what do you know? Not how it ends, not what every critical moment in the story will be, not what every pivotal line will be, not how the tone may change, and not what paths the characters are going to take between beginning and end. It teases the movie; it doesn’t summarize the movie.
And, critically, the trailer finds a couple of unforgettable images to bury in the public consciousness. First, Malkovich angrily proclaims, “You are part of a league of morons,” as we watch Pitt in a gloriously un-self-conscious half-jogging, half-fist-pumping run on a treadmill, looking precisely like ... well, part of a league of morons.
Second, there is Brad Pitt dancing. Arms over head, hips wiggling, headphones dangling, face in a triumphant grin. This is a brilliant choice, because Pitt has become such a self-serious figure in recent years, often seen looking dour and annoyed while being chased by photographers. You only have to know that this is Brad Pitt in Fun Brad Pitt mode — you don’t have to know why he’s dancing.
“Burn After Reading” has also been smart enough to find comedy moments that are genuinely funny. From the “league of morons” line to Pitt’s flinch when Malkovich poke-punches him in the face to a naughty George Clooney line uttered to Swinton in the red-band (R-rated) version of the trailer, the jokes will make you laugh. They might be the only funny jokes in the whole movie, but at least they work.
This is an advantage not enjoyed by the trailer for “The Women,” starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, and quite a lot of other people. The movie is trying to position itself as kicky and funny — a gals-day-out movie like “Sex and the City.” As such, the trailer plays the game where there’s a big buildup with music that signals unmistakably that you are hitting a punch line (punched plenty hard), and that’s where the comic rubber hits the road, as it were. Either it’s funny or it isn’t; there’s no subtlety.
And in the trailer for “The Women,” the jokes are painfully unfunny. The opening sequence burns time setting up a joke where a pregnant Debra Messing says, “I want to keep going until I get a boy,” and Jada Pinkett Smith says, “Don’t we have enough of those?” It is a joke to make you say … “Wow.” As in, “Wow, that is the grabber joke for the trailer. Wonder what the jokes they didn’t pick are like.”
Similarly, Annette Bening to Messing, in shock: “He’s fooling around with some woman who works behind the perfume counter.” Messing, in exaggerated, “Will & Grace”-style disgust: “The spritzer girl?” It’s just not funny enough. You can’t use a trailer full of bombs to advertise a comedy; people notice.
If the reviews are right, the “Burn After Reading” trailer may be so skillful that it’s successfully hiding a movie that’s not as good as it looks, and maybe that’s a bad thing. But even if the movie were just the trailer played 50 times in a row, it would be better than much of what has his theaters this summer.