Burn After Reading

| September 15, 2008

I was less than enthused with the Coens’ previous film, No Country for Old Men. Most people saw its dour tone as a perfect reflection of its theme that we are powerless to outrun death. I felt that the lack of humor only made the film feel soulless, an empty–yet technically skilled–exercise in suspense. I’m sure that many of the people who heaped praise on that film will complain that this latest confection from Joel and Ethan Coen is a step backward, a silly trifle with a big-name cast. That’s too bad, because in its own way, I found Burn After Reading to be, if anything, more pessimistic than No Country for Old Men. And thankfully, it’s much funnier to boot.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around ditzy gym employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, Fargo) and her efforts to raise the money necessary to get several plastic surgery procedures done. Helping her in this quest is her equally dim friend Chad (Brad Pitt, Fight Club), a personal trainer/male bimbo who comes up with a scheme to blackmail a bitter ex-CIA analyst (John Malkovich, Shadow of the Vampire) whose memoirs have wound up in Chad’s hands through a series of coincidences. Mistaking the memoirs for official CIA secrets, Linda and Chad go through a series of increasingly absurd misadventures in an effort to get paid for their “find.” As things spin more and more out of control, a series of other characters find themselves caught up in the fallout of the ill-conceived plan including a womanizing Federal Marshal (George Clooney, Three Kings), the analyst’s icy wife (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton) and Linda’s love-sick boss (Richard Jenkins, Flirting with Disaster).
The Coen brothers have always had a way of making genres conform to their own peculiar style and this time is no different. They manage to blend their mixture of comic absurdity with the tone of a Tony Scott-style spy thriller that includes moments of graphic violence and truly unpleasant characters. In fact, much of the film plays like a spoof of paranoia thrillers like Enemy of the State and Spy Game. And while the suitably bombastic score by Carter Burwell and slick cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki highlight the spoof-like elements of the film, they are also the least effective components. In particular, Lubezki’s work, while adequate, is a far cry from the beautiful compositions put together by normal Coen collaborator Roger Deakins.
As usual, the Coen brothers manage to cast just the right people to specific roles. Regular collaborators McDormand, Clooney and Jenkins deliver as expected, but it’s Malkovich and Swinton who really nail their parts, playing the most angry, unlikable screen couple since Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses. The contempt and outright hatred that they feel not just for each other, but also for nearly everyone they encounter is palpable and makes for some very big and uneasy laughs. If there is one weak link in the cast, it’s Pitt. He overplays the idiot role to the point where he ceases to be funny and becomes a distraction whenever he’s on screen. Still, he’s not a terrible misstep since one of his costars is usually there to pick up the slack.
Despite the farcical tone, the film reaches some extremely dark conclusions about the human experience in modern-day America. Nearly all of the characters are deeply unhappy and involved in affairs, divorces and various criminal endeavors that leave behind a trail of property and human damage. And viewing it all with a detached and confused eye are ineffectual government officials who are more concerned with avoiding any contact with these insane people than with preventing the violent outcomes of their actions.
But thankfully, these cynical observations are presented with a large helping of laughs. And that makes the Coen brothers’ obsession with the violent randomness of life much easier to take than in their last outing. Slight and full of silliness, it’s still a bracing reminder that reality is often more absurd and messy than we like to admit and that sometimes, there are no lessons to be learned from the ridiculous actions of others or ourselves.

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