Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons
Running Time: 96 min.
*** (Out of ****)
Burn After Reading is the rare film that’s truly about nothing. Fortunately, “nothing” can be pretty hilarious when it’s handled by the Coen Brothers. The movie is the equivalent of watching Tom Cruise’s cameo in Tropic Thunder for an hour and a half. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that funny, but it shares similarities in that the comedy comes out of the ridiculously absurd and involves big stars being able to laugh at themselves. From the get-go you’re not exactly sure where the film plans to take you and by the end you realize it took you nowhere at all. But it doesn’t matter because it’s a lot of fun getting there.
The Coens respond to the pressure of having to follow up their Best Picture Oscar win for No Country For Old Men by simply not responding at all, which was the best route to take. In many ways the film comes across as a big joke on critics and audiences who expected them to continue down the same thematically challenging road. There’s nothing challenging about this material in the slightest, and the film is only better for it. Instead, we find out that despite last year’s detour to the dark side the guys who brought us Raising Arizona, Fargo and The Big Lebowski have retained their quirky sense of humor and ability to get us to care about even the weirdest of characters. This will never be mistaken for those aforementioned films and wouldn't be considered among the Coens’ best, but I far prefer them when they’re working in this mode so it’s reassuring to discover they haven’t lost their touch.
The film’s convoluted and often intersecting plot involves alcoholic C.I.A. agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) who quits the agency after being informed of his impending demotion. But that’s not even the worst part. He now must come home and break the news to his bitchy, ice queen wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) who’s having an emotionless affair with ex-secret service agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a serial womanizer who prowls the internet for dates while contemplating a divorce from his wife. On one of those dating sites he meets "Hardbodies" gym employee Linda Lizke (Frances McDormand) who dreams of extensive plastic surgeries she hopes will transform her appearance. Her big break seems to come when along with her airhead co-worker Chad Feldenheimer (Brad Pitt) she discovers a copy of Osborn’s unpublished C.I.A. memoirs and attempts to blackmail him. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned and the situation gets very messy for every party involved, whether they know they’re involved or not.
It’s almost become a cliché to say that when a well known actor tackles an against type role that we’re seeing them “like we’ve never seen them before.” Except in the case of Pitt and Clooney in this film it’s true. You’ve really never seen them like this and the results are hilarious. Decked out in a goofy spandex outfit and pompadour haircut Pitt channels a far too energetic fitness instructor so well it’s alarming. You don’t expect someone of Pitt’s stature to take a role like this, especially when he’s finally reached that point where he’s really being taken seriously as an actor. In way, that’s part of what makes it so fun. A lesser actor might have mistakenly kept the volume down fearing a descent into parody but Pitt realizes his job is to present a broad caricature and just has a blast with it. And I’m wondering why more people didn’t go as Chad Feldenheimer for Halloween. There’s always next year.
As strong as Pitt is, Clooney’s even better and the one memorable scene they share together is one of the most entertaining in the film. I’m not sure what’s happened with him over the past couple of years but it seems as if like he’s really turning the corner as an actor and taking more chances. With this and his underrated Leatherheads from earlier in the year he’s proving to have an unexpected knack for comedy. If pressed, I probably could have guessed he’d be able to accurately portray a womanizing sleaze ball, but I had no idea he’d be able to make him this funny…and clueless. Just look at the look of pride on his face when he unveils the mysterious contraption he’s been building for weeks in his basement. We think it has something to do with the plot but by now we really should know better. He has another memorable moment in the park, flipping out in full panic mode when he thinks a massive conspiracy is closing in on him. I'd even go as far as to say his work here is nomination worthy. That the material is essentially pointless doesn't make what he had to do any less difficult. I'd argue that just made it harder.
Harry is beyond pathetic yet Clooney somehow finds a way to make the guy seem both creepy and enduringly likable. A similar statement could be made for nearly all of the film’s characters because as ridiculous as their actions seem they do strangely feel rooted in a recognizable reality. This is especially true of Linda, who has a sadness to her that never comes off as pathetic in McDormand’s capable hands. We’re not only rooting for her but feel for the gym manager (played by Richard Jenkins) who can’t get her to notice him or, more importantly, notice her own hidden potential. Jenkins plays the situation as straight as he played the one in The Visitor and you can read the desperation and exhaustion on his face in trying to get through to this woman. It’s a lost cause, but he can’t help it. Malkovich is as weird as ever, with it stepped up a few notches since it’s a Coen brothers movie. The further the story gets the further off the deep end he goes.
There’s little plot to discuss not because there isn’t one (there’s enough for five movies) but because it’s largely irrelevant. The movie is the performances and the characters react to the crazy situation they’re in exactly how stupid or desperate people would. It’s hard to fault the film for not amounting to anything when it openly admits that that’s the entire point. Some of the funniest moments come when a C.I.A. agent (David Rasche) must report and actually attempt to explain the bizarre goings on to his superior (J.K. Simmons). It’s then when we finally realize just how little sense the entire thing makes and how only Joel and Ethan Coen could have possibly come up with it.
In tone, Burn After Reading falls into some kind of grey area between Fargo and the somewhat underrated and misunderstood Intolerable Cruelty, although it’s probably a lot closer to the latter. I didn’t enjoy No Country For Old Men a much as everyone else (are we even supposed to "enjoy" it?) but respected it greatly and will concede that there are very few if any directors working today capable of having two films so wildly different on their resumes. There’s something to be said for range and the Coens have it in spades. When the film concludes in asking what we’ve learned and the answer is of course nothing, that actually comes as a surprisingly huge relief.