Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen basically make two kinds of pictures: ambitious, arty dramas sprinkled with dark humor (Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Miller's Crossing) and broad, wacky comedies sprinkled with highbrow artistry (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Are Thou?). The comedies are often described as "arch," which sounds like a pretentious word to me, yet it's also a pretty sound description. The Coens like their humor a little over-the-top - not in an Adam Sandler type of way, but rather in a funhouse mirror kind of way. Some folks like the Coen comedies more than the dramas, some folks prefer the dramas, and some folks just plain don't get these guys at all. I fall into the fourth category: folks who like and admire both kinds. With the exception of The Ladykillers (an ambitious failure), I've enjoyed everything the filmmaking siblings have put their fingers on.
To follow up the Oscar-winning No Country, Joel and Ethan have made Burn After Reading, which is notable because it manages to be a little bit of each style. It's a comedy, yet a more restrained one, and at the same time there is a healthy dose of the ambitiousness that marks their dramas. Burn doesn't quite equal the Coens' best work in either form, but it does signify an ability to meld them together, which suggests a fascinating new path for them in the future.
John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a CIA official who, in the opening scene, opts to quit rather than be demoted. Left with no job, he begins writing his professional memoirs, much to the consternation of his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). Unbeknownst to Osborne, Katie is fooling around with a married man named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and meeting with a lawyer to discuss divorce proceedings. Through an event that I won't reveal here, a CD of Osborne's memoirs ends up in the hands of two fitness instructors: Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda needs a lot of money in order to have a series of cosmetic surgeries, and the imbecilic Chad convinces her that they can profit from their find. His big plan: try to sell it to the Russians, because they were our enemy once upon a time, right?
Burn After Reading has a plot, yet it is not necessarily a plot-driven movie. Or, more precisely, it's a movie where the plot is merely a plaything to be twisted, contorted, and mangled at will. The humor comes from the chaos generated when Linda and Chad try to sell the disc. All the different characters cross paths, try to figure out who the others are and what their motives may be. The fun comes in watching the misunderstandings, conflicts, and confusions occur. Have you ever seen a cat playing with a ball of yarn, batting it violently back and forth just for the fun of it? The Coens essentially do the same thing with their characters. They put them in a scenario, find ways to repeatedly shake it up, then watch the results with amusement.
And what typically oddball characters they are, too. Chad likes to work the word "shit" into every sentence (as in, "This is some super-secret spy shit!"), while Osborne relies on a much hardier word. Linda will do almost anything to earn enough for her plastic surgery. Then there's Harry, who reveals some, shall we say, surprising proclivities as the story moves on. The actors (especially Pitt) all do a first-rate job finding the humor in their roles, without resorting to the mug-for-the-camera antics that were a trademark of Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Are Thou?.
If Burn After Reading isn't as quite as funny as those broader-than-broad comedies, it is nevertheless funny enough to provide a good time. I like the fact that the Coens take their characters a little more seriously here. Going over-the-top wouldn't necessarily fit this time, since the story revolves around things like the CIA and potential espionage. Being too broad would be like shooting fish in a barrel; pulling back a bit makes the satire hit a little closer to the bullseye. And if Burn doesn't necessarily have the resonance of No County For Old Men or Fargo, it at least proves that the Coens are still capable of sustaining a mood and capitalizing on their ability to surprise us. The most effective scene in the movie involves someone getting shot in the head. You gasp, then laugh, then feel a wave of pity for both victim and shooter. This is the sort of thing the Coens do best: mixing sweet and sour to twist your emotions on a dime.
Very late in the movie, David Rasche and J.K. Simmons show up for two hilarious scenes as, respectively, a CIA officer and a CIA superior. Their scenes have little direct connection to anything else; instead, they act as something of a Greek chorus. The officer comes in and briefs the superior on the events we have just seen unfold. The superior's reaction is…well, let's just say that Burn After Reading is ultimately about the idea of government "intelligence" that is anything but intelligent. No connection is ever drawn to any real-world scenario, yet it's clear that the Coen brothers question the very notion of security in the hands of the intelligence community.
The joke being, of course, that no one in this movie is particularly intelligent. Dumb perhaps, but never unsympathetic. Although they do stupid things to put themselves in danger, I was won over by the characters in Burn After Reading. It's not their fault that they're dim. They think they're smart and making good decisions. If that were true, the movie wouldn't be nearly as wickedly fun as it is.
( out of four)
Burn After Reading is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.
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