It's a Fool That Looks for Logic in the Chambers of the Human Heart
Burn After Reading / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | September 12, 2008 | Comments ()
The Coen brothers have carved out a career that’s all over the map in regards to tone, content, and the general seriousness of their stories. Writing, producing, directing, and even editing as a team, they’ve been responsible for the Texas noir of Blood Simple and the sublime silliness of Raising Arizona; they’re responsible for No Country for Old Men, one of the greatest dramas of the past decade, and The Big Lebowski, arguably the greatest cult film of all time. If there’s a through-line that could be used to pin down their films, it’s a sense of almost phenomenal confidence in their voice and what they’re trying to do within a given story. That confidence comes through loud and clear in Burn After Reading, a gleefully absurd, consistently funny, and thoroughly entertaining film that touches on the Coens’ trademark wit, rhythm, and inevitable bursts of violence. Whether it will hold up and come to find a place in the brothers’ pantheon of greatness is something only time will tell, but it’s a strong and often hilarious dark comedy that lives up to the Coen name.
The story — I’m doing my best not to use horribly overwrought descriptors like “madcap,” but still, you get the idea — begins when Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is laid off from his job as a CIA analyst, sending an already negative guy into a depressed funk. Even his firing has a weird but definite humor to it: When his superiors say he has a drink problem, Osborne wheels on an associate and says, “You’re a Mormon; next to you, we all have a drinking problem!” Osborne is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton), a cold, domineering woman who’s sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a loudmouth former Treasury Department guy who’s with the U.S. Marshals and wears his gun everywhere. The script spends a fair amount of time just setting up these characters and their various physical and professional relationships, and while the film is ostensibly a comedy, it’s a Coen brothers one, which means the jokes are necessarily going to tie in to some pretty deep-seated psychological traumas. In this case, most of the characters are blandly monstrous to each other, sleeping with whoever shows up, engaging in a series of increasingly meaningless relationships whose duplicities mirror the quasi-espionage that’s about to come down and send the whole plot spinning in another direction. But the Coens never hit this note too hard: They just let it play.
In a pre-emptive move while preparing to file divorce papers, Katie transfers Osborne’s financial records and unintentionally some fragments of his memoirs to a CD that’s misplaced by her lawyer’s assistant and winds up at a gym in the hands of employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), an eager, sad woman who’s saving money for a series of cosmetic surgeries to “reinvent herself,” and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a blissfully dumb trainer who wants nothing more out of life than a good smoothie. Chad, examining the back accounts and personal notes on the CD, concludes that it’s “high-level intelligence shit,” at which point he and Linda begin to form some really terrible plans about how to find the disc’s owner and blackmail him. Linda’s also throwing herself upon the mercy of online dating, enlisting Chad’s help to find a decent-looking guy. After a few bad dates and unfortunate hookups that all seem to generate from the same bench-lined walking path in the park, Linda meets Harry, with whom she (thinks she) has an instant bond over everything from movies to personal outlook.
Once Linda and Harry get involved, the Coens really have to force the plots to interweave, just let things keep on rolling. Chad and Linda figure out that their CD used to belong to Osborne, leading to some brilliant exchanges between Osborne, who’s pissed off that someone’s stealing his work, and Chad, who narrows his eyes and tries to talk tough while making veiled threats to Osborne about “the security of your shit.” It’s inane and unrealistic in the best way, and the Coens get a lot of mileage out of a decent script in the hands of a talented cast.
It’s Malkovich’s Osborne that gets the ball rolling, but as the story evolves, he becomes less a central character and more one piece of an increasingly bizarre but enjoyable puzzle. Clooney can practically do this kind of thing in his sleep now, having played equally dimwitted anti-heroes in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. But as the final leg in what Clooney’s described as the Coens’ informal “idiot trilogy,” his Harry is appropriately stupid and self-involved, too focused on his own basic desires to dog women and get a jog in before dinner to realize that his own life might be falling apart. The rest of the cast is, as expected, pitch-perfect in their roles. McDormand — who’s married to Joel Coen in the real world — is fantastic and wounded and unable to hold onto her life as it begins to unravel, and she brings a wonderful air of likeability and grace to the role, not to mention a sense of physical comedy and the ability to communicate a host of imagined punch lines with a shift of her eyebrows or the way she bites her lip. And Pitt is just amazing and goofy and confused and so damn earnest that he coasts on sheer goodwill. Chad is the only main character who’s never even remotely developed psychologically, and it’s not because the Coens are lazy; it’s because he doesn’t need to be. He’s a force of pure grinning happiness and idiocy, a nice guy who exists simply to support his friends.
Despite the film’s setting in and around Washington, D.C., and the fact that it (a) revolves around the perceived theft of national security documents and (b) occasionally explodes into moments of shocking violence, it’s impossible to view Burn After Reading as anything other than another film in which the Coens create a small world of idiosyncratic characters and then watch them run into each other. The script is packed with smart jokes, dumb people, and moments in which the writer-directors do nothing but bask in the cognitive dissonance of, say, a CIA agent attacking a guy with a hatchet. Monitoring the escalating situation from their headquarters in Langley, one of the agency’s superiors tells his colleague, “Report back to me when … I don’t know … when it makes sense.” But for the Coens, it already does.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.