Like many other people, I really love the Coen Brother’s darker sensibilities. Blood Simple, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country for Old Men are favorites of mine; they’re great movies that tell dark stories while keeping a certain quirkiness to their tone, but without winking too noticeably at the audience. When the Coen Brothers make more straightforward comedies however, my taste in them tends to be a bit more hit or miss. I love The Big Lebowski as much as the next guy, but projects like Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy never really worked for me. Part of my distate for these movies comes from the way they were transparently borrowing from older movies and putting their own riff on them, additionally the teaming of John Goodman, John Turturro, and Steve Buscemi got a bit grating after a few films, and some of the broader comedy and fourth wall breaks were not to my tastes. The Coen’s new movie, Burn After Reading, is very much of their comedic cannon but it’s darker than a lot of them, and it does away with some of their more annoying traits.
The movie begins with a veteran CIA analyst named Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) being told he will be demoted because of a drinking problem, outraged by this he quits and storms out. Later he tells his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), that he plans to write his memoirs which he says may be “explosive.” Katie, who’s been having an affair with a U.S. Marshall named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), is thinks his decision to quit his job is foolish and begins planning a divorce in secret. Katie’s lawyers try to steal Osbourne’s financial files, but in doing so a CD containing the rough draft of his memoir is lost in the locker room of a health club and is found by a personal trainer named Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who shows it to another employee named Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Linda, who desperately wants money so she can afford multiple plastic surgeries, comes up with a plan to use the CD to blackmail Osbourne into giving them fifty thousand dollars.
The catch to all of this is that all of these people are really, really, stupid. The information on the CD at the center of all this isn’t very valuable, the CIA director calls the incident “no biggie,” yet they all plot and scheme about it like it’s a vital component of national security that’s worth all the trouble they put into it. At the center of all their troubles is ego, Osbourne has a big enough ego to think anyone cares about his memoirs, Chad and Linda are egotistical to think they know how to effectively blackmail somebody, and Harry is egotistical enough to think the government is after him.
If I were to compare Burn After Reading to any prior movie in the Coen brother’s cannon it would probably be Fargo, in fact both movies have the same basic message at their core: that one shouldn’t let greed push you into the dark side, odds are you aren’t prepared for the consequences. Frances McDormand is by far the least sympathetic of the bunch, she is motivated purely by greed and manipulates those around her to do most of her dirty work. She is in many ways similar to William H. Macy’s character from Fargo, in that she is trying to behave like a criminal but doesn’t know what she’s doing and this results in a disastrous situation.
The Coen brothers’ films are always set in a very specific time and place which affects the very texture of the film on a very deep level. The place isn’t as important here but the time is. The film is set in Washington D.C. during the present day. If any other filmmakers had set their film in the present it wouldn’t be noteworthy, but its something the Coens rarely do. For all intents and purposes this is the first Coen brothers film to take place in the 21st century. This isn’t just a default choice for the Coens, it’s a deliberate decision. The reason they set it in the present is that this story is very deeply about modern paranoia and about government secrecy.
The most comical of the characters here, by far, is Brad Pitt’s character, a personal trainer so naïve and perky that his every motion is hilarious. This character is completely clueless and easily manipulated by the Frances McDormand’s character, one almost feels sorry for him getting dragged into her crazy scheme. Malkovich is also great here, his character is a little bit like his famous self portrayal in Being John Malkovich in that he seems frustratingly confused through the whole thing. Clooney is also an interesting presence in the movie, his work isn’t quite as stellar as Pitt, McDormand, or Malkovich, but he holds his own.
This is a very funny movie, but it’s not as madcap or breezy as some of its trailers make it look. The humor will come as no surprise to anyone even slightly familiar to the Coen brother’s work, most of the humor comes from the dialog and the deadpan deliveries of the actors. There are some very funny one-liners, but most of them are more effective because of their context and their delivery than they are in isolation. That said there is a dark edge to the whole affair, some of the situations the character are in are rather dire, and is also some gallows humor on display. It isn’t half as dark as No Country For Old Men, or even Fargo, but one should be aware that this movie doesn’t try to appeal to a mass audience.
The movie really has everything you’d expect from a Coen Brothers comedy; laughs, laid back performances, and sudden bursts of violence mixed with comedy. In fact it has almost too much of what one would expect from a Coen brothers movie, in many ways it’s a holding pattern. If you had hoped the Coens had entered a new phase in their career with No Country For Old Men that would extend to their next project you’ll be disappointed by this film. What’s more, the film’s similarities to their other comedies draw comparisons to those other projects and it looks worse in comparison.
Burn After Reading is not on the same level as No Country For Old Men or Fargo for that matter. It’s a second tier Coen Brothers movie. That said, it’s also a very funny movie with fun performances and a nice quirky little story. In other words, if anyone else had made this it wouldn’t have been much of a disappointment, because this is a good movie, it just isn’t profound or wildly original. The movie is worth seeing, even if it isn’t the best thing the coens have made I still enjoyed the ride.