Burn After Reading
Director : Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Screenplay : Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), John Malkovich (Osborne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Richard Jenkins (Ted Treffon), David Rasche (CIA Officer), J.K. Simmons (CIA Superior), Olek Krupa (Krapotkin), Michael Countryman (Alan)
Joel and Ethan Coen have a special affinity for characters who are dumber than they seem, which is matched only by their affinity for characters who are precisely as dumb as they seem. Burn After Reading, their relentlessly ridiculous screwball follow-up to No Country for Old Men (2007), the dusty, violent, existential modern western that nabbed them a handful of Oscars last year, is populated by a rogue’s gallery of such characters, and while the film as a whole isn’t as self-consciously cartoonish as some of the Coens’s previous efforts (I’m thinking Raising Arizona and, to a lesser extent, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), it is still a typically ridiculous rebuke to their more serious-minded artistic tendencies. For all its narrative convolutions, Burn After Reading ultimately feels like something they jotted down on a napkin after a few drinks at dinner, which I sense is precisely how they want it to play. The inclusion in their dialogue of purposefully highfalutin words like frivolity and ebullience only underscores how willfully flippant the whole enterprise really is.
The film opens with the unexpected demotion of C.I.A. analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an expert on the Balkans who doesn’t take his downgrade very well. Steaming mad and full of his own self-importance, he decides to write a potentially fiery memoir (which, in true Coen fashion, he always pronounces with the proper French enunciation of the silent r). What he doesn’t know is that his icy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with a serially adulterous Treasury agent named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and wants to divorce him. As part of her divorce plan, she downloads their financial files onto a CD, but also inadvertently downloads his mem-wah-in-progress, which then gets lost and winds up in the hands of Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDorman), two less-than-bright-bulbs who work at a fitness club called Hardbodies. Because Chad thinks they deserve a good Samaritan award and because Linda wants money for four plastic surgeries (“I’ve taken this body as far as it can go,” she declares at one point), they try to blackmail Cox for $50,000 to return the CD, which not surprisingly leads to one major snafu after another, eventually involving the Russian embassy and a no-nonsense C.I.A. superior (played with typically unflappable verve by J.K. Simmons) whose answer to everything is “burn the body.”
Especially after No Country for Old Men, which in many respects was the Coen Brothers’ artistic high point, Burn After Reading feels like a disposable gag, something they tossed off in-between “serious” projects. It constantly teeters on the brink of falling apart, but it’s held together by the sheer will of its talented cast, all of whom seem to relish the opportunity to get a little goofy (Pitt is especially good as an overeager mimbo with bad highlights and Clooney again proves that he has the comic timing of Clark Gable to match the good looks). The Coens seems to have dialed back on the style somewhat, perhaps because they couldn’t work with their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has shot all of their films since 1990’s Miller’s Crossing. Instead they allow the narrative antics and the characters, who are sometimes surprisingly tender given their caricatured natures, to take center-stage. Tonally, the film rests somewhere in the neighborhood of The Lady Killers’ anything-goes black comedy, and morally it shares Fargo’s “Whatcha gonna do?” despair at the human capacity for malfeasance, although with a nastier comic bite (imagine Fargo with Norm being the one who ends up in the wood chipper).
At the end of the film Simmons’s C.I.A. superior wraps up the mess not with confidence, but with a sense of absolute confusion, which may be the way some viewers feel when the credits start suddenly rolling, leaving several plot lines unresolved and more than a few unexpected characters dead. And, given the way the Coens leave things, I can’t help but feel that Simmons’s final lines about not knowing exactly what he’s done and vowing never to do it again is a sly in-joke from the brothers themselves, offering a barely disguised key to unlocking the movie’s twisted combo of yuks and gore.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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