2008 // USA - UK - France // Ethan and Joel Coen // September 15, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Ethan and Joel Coen are likely the most self-consciously clever of American auteurs, although rarely insufferably so, and certainly the most disposed to genre-hopping. Given that No Country For Old Men was last year's unqualified triumph in English-language cinema, it's perhaps inevitable then that their next feature would prove to be a lesser film, if only by deliberate design. "Give us an Oscar will you, Hollywood Establishment? This'll show 'em." That's not to say that Burn After Reading is a bad film, or even a mediocre one. It is pure Coen, and therefore a rich cinematic meal to savor and absorb, rife with cartoon heartbreak and bleak absurdism. It also may be the darkest, cruelest film the brothers have ever made, and considering that they gave us Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn't There, that's saying something. Contra the film's promotion, Burn After Reading is not, strictly speaking, a satire of the spy thriller genre. There are spies in it, sure, but the film is essentially a tragic farce about how venal, deceitful, and just plain stupid humanity can be. It therefore may not qualify as everyone's idea of "entertainment."
The plot is labyrinthine, but it hinges on a CD-ROM containing "secret shit," as personal trainer Chad (Brad Pitt) succinctly puts it. The CD has turned up on the locker room floor of Hardbodies, a D.C. gym where the enthusiastic Chad and glum co-worker Linda (Frances McDormand) are employed under anxious manager Ted (Richard Jenkins). The mysterious disc appears to contain classified U.S. intelligence files, and Pitt and McDormand mull over ways to turn this discovery to their financial advantage. Specifically, McDormand is thinking of the cosmetic surgery that she has been coveting, surgery not covered by her health plan. ("I've taken this body as far as I can!" she laments.) The pair track down the apparent owner of the disc, a tense, alcoholic, foul-mouthed CIA analyst named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), but their negotiations end badly. Who else would want to buy secret intelligence shit? The Russians, of course! Clearly, Pitt and McDormand are not only greedy, but woefully behind the times in terms of their geopolitical awareness.
It turns out that Malkovich has recently resigned from the CIA rather than accept a demotion, and he is laboring on a vengeful memoir about his years in the U.S. intelligence service. He is married to a pediatrician, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who just might be the coldest, most waspish person ever to choose a profession dealing with children. Swinton is having an affair with neurotic Treasury Department agent Harry (George Clooney), while quietly meeting with lawyers to initiate divorce proceedings against her husband. In addition to his regular flings with Swinton, Clooney routinely steps out on his wife with women he meets on the Internet. It's worth pointing out here that Harry is probably the most gleefully repulsive role that Clooney has ever played: a vain, waffling, sex-addicted, paranoid, compulsive liar. Clooney meets McDormand through a dating service, which closes the loop on the character flowchart, and sets up this tangle of relationships to tighten around everyone in a cascade of coincidences, stupid decisions, and tragic mistakes.
While all the performers do a fine job, most of them--McDormand, Malkovich, Swinton, Jenkins--are essentially playing their standard role. That is, if you enjoy watching McDormand doing that thing that she does, you'll appreciate her in Burn. Admittedly and a little unexpectedly, Malkovich is a welcome addition, as his distracted, theatrical style adds some refreshing rattle to the standard clockwork hum of the Coen script. However, the truly pleasurable performances belong to Pitt and Clooney. Pitt exhibits astonishing comedic chops in a character that is a bit off the beaten path for him: a hopelessly uncool and witless dope, completely unaware of his own limits. Some of the most ludicrously funny moments in Burn involve Pitt's baffling attempts to approximate an espionage tough, by narrowing his eyes and affecting a guttural growl. Clooney, meanwhile, has a less amusing role, but one that's a more substantial depature. Not only is Clooney thoroughly unlikeable in Burn, but he exploits his normal charismatic currency—his swagger and ten-grand smile—to convey a sense of creepy phoniness. Eventually, when he breaks down into wild-eyed paranoid hysterics by the film's end, Clooney pulls off an elegant trick, coaxing us to both fear him and fear for him.
Burn After Reading features a host of morally bankrupt characters, but it's not a morally bankrupt film. Granted, it doesn't really seem to have an ethos, in the way that one expects of most art films, even black comedies. Its aim is simply to shine a glaring light on the essential stupidity of humankind. It's tempting to deride the Coens for selecting this softest of targets for their morbid wit. However, they savage humanity's plight without the vengeful tone of most satire, and with such mirthful abandon that the film comes off as flabbergasted and bemused rather than scolding. It's no coincidence that Burn opens with a long zoom from high orbit above the Earth to the halls of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Mimicking the eye of a spy satellite—the God the Father of the post-faith twenty-first century, tallying our sins from its heavenly vantage point—this shot hints that we should see the events of the film from a deity's chilly distance. We are free to laugh or weep, as warranted, at the idiocy of its characters.
Given this removed quality to its approach, Burn may not be the sort of comedy that will satisfy viewers looking for an escapist chuckle. It's outrageously funny, but it's ugly funny: relationships disintegrate, careers crumble, and at least two people die brutally. Even devoted Coen fans may be uneasy laughing at such things. This is particularly the case given that Burn, unlike the directors' other comedies, doesn't offer much in the way of redemption or a moral. What's troublesome is the sense of puffed philosophical pandering at work in Burn, one that's too sweeping and definitive to sit comfortably with the brothers' usual taste for ambiguity. That people are stupid and life can be a sick joke are hardly original sentiments, and it's not clear why the Coens deserve credit for advancing them. Regardless of the coarseness of its aims, however, Burn After Reading is utterly, sickly funny, in a way that sets it apart from... well, every other film not directed by the Coens, I suppose.