Having toned down their raging condescension for No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coen Brothers return to abject misanthropy for their spy-thriller parody Burn After Reading (2008). It isn’t surprising to see the Coens making a broad comedy so quickly after one of their more “respectable” serious films, as Raising Arizona (1987) was their follow-up to Blood Simple (1984) and The Big Lebowski (1998) appeared not long after Fargo (1996). In some respects, the duo’s absurdist sensibility fits more comfortably in comedy than in drama, and the aforementioned comedies are stronger films than the darker pictures that preceded them (Lebowski in particular is one of the Coens’ finest achievements). But sometimes the Coens treat the fact that they’re making a comedy, and therefore have the right to stereotype their characters to a certain extent to elicit laughs, as an excuse for piling scorn on characters that they unmistakably consider to be beneath them (and presumably beneath their hip, knowing audience as well).
Burn After Reading at least distinguishes itself from Coen lowpoints Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) in that it has a fairly firm satiric point of view, an impressively complicated yet accessible plot, and a strong target for its comedy. The misinformed paranoia of the information age is certainly ripe for Strangelovian dark satire, and the Coens’ decision to style their film as a dry parody of corporate intrigue thrillers is inspired. But the execution leaves something to be desired. The main element of the plot, involving complications that arise when a disc containing portions of ex-CIA employee John Malkovich’s unpublished memoirs gets into the hands of people who mistakenly think that they’re looking at classified government documents, is interesting and funny, and a promising storyline for a comedy set in present-day Washington, D.C. Yet the Coens keep diverting from what could’ve been an incisive look at deluded, politically inert people jumping to conclusions about things they don’t understand. The central idea of Burn After Reading is witty and relevant to our time, but it keeps getting drowned out by jokes about easy targets (such as plastic surgery and the vapidity of workout culture), ugly gender politics, and shrill performances.
The cast of Burn After Reading is as strong as expected from a Coen Brothers film, but they’ve been directed to act in an over-the-top, heavily mugging style that clashes badly with the rest of the film’s straight-faced aesthetic. It doesn’t help that their characters are so narrowly defined. George Clooney is a cowardly horndog, Frances McDormand is a narcissist (who is paradoxically ashamed of her body), Brad Pitt is stupid, Tilda Swinton is cold and domineering, and Malkovich is angry and arrogant. And that is pretty much all they are throughout the movie’s 96 minutes. The actors are talented enough to do what the Coens ask them to do, but none of them manage to transcend the limitations of their thinly realized characters. It also seems extra condescending to have Clooney and Pitt, two of the world’s most popular, attractive, and wealthy people, play unlikeable buffoons. Despite the stars’ best efforts to disappear into their characters – and Pitt, in particular, actually does a pretty good job with one of his rare comedic performances – they are too famous to be entirely convincing. They can’t help but wink at the audience and say “we’re not really losers!”
Despite these many flaws, and the general feeling of a promising premise unfulfilled, Burn After Reading isn’t a total loss. The atmosphere of the film isn’t as distinctive as one would expect from a Coen film, but the filmmakers do successfully capture the look and sound of the contemporary conspiracy thrillers that they’re mocking. A scene involving Clooney’s paranoid character shooting the snooping but harmless Pitt is wonderfully staged and edited; I remember being genuinely shocked by this moment when I saw the film in theatres, even though it is the logical endpoint of Clooney’s recurring bullshitting about staying cool under pressure and not needing to use his gun on security jobs. Two scenes involving baffled CIA higher-ups discussing the utter pointlessness of the film’s events are pretty funny (even though it seems a little obvious to cast J.K. Simmons in this type of role). And the contrast between the tense spy drama that the characters think they’re in and the actual banality of their situation does provide a few laughs, even if Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant (2009) ultimately did the same thing a lot better. But we have a right to expect more than a handful of laughs and a few half-realized ideas from the filmmakers who finally seemed to be living up to their promise with No Country for Old Men.
UP NEXT A Serious Man