Burn After Reading: A Review

Burn After Reading – Dir: Ethan & Joel Coen; *ing: John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton

“Osbourne Cox? I thought you might be worried… about the security… of your shit”.

Oh those Coen boys, they are SO predictable! First they’ll grab your soul by the lapels and dunk it head first into the depths of harrowing moral introspection – think Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and last year’s Oscar’s bride No Country For Old Men – and then follow up with a comic caper so laid back and airy you’d think they were two… er, four, personalities – Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski. And now the sucker-punch of Burn After Reading, a gleefully nutty quasi-political farce that has already neatly divided critics into the Loves and Love-nots, a situation quite reminiscent of the initial reception meted out to Lebowski – at first dismissed as slight fare, now considered quite the stoner classic.

CIA-man Osbourne Cox (Malkovich, a scary delight as an F-bomb laying mean son-of-a-gun) is beyond livid at being demoted for being an alcoholic (“I have a drinking problem?! Fuck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon. Compared to you we ALL have a drinking problem!”). Quitting in a rage, he sets about writing a tell-all memoir of his days on the Balkans desk. His icy, brittle wife Katie (Swinton) is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a Treasury agent working on a secret basement project while courting other dating prospects online. One of these happens to be Linda Litzke (McDormand), an employee at a local gym desperate for some major cosmetic overhauling (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me”) which she can scarcely afford. Her colleague, mush-brained Chad (Pitt) somehow comes upon a CD containing Cox’s personal files, which then proceeds to become, in celebrated Hitchcockian vein, the MacGuffin of the film. Convinced that he’s stumbled upon some serious… well, let’s hear Chad tell it: “Highly classified shit found: Raw intelligence shit, CIA shit? Hello, anybody lose their secret CIA shit?”, he and Linda initially attempt to return the CD as a patriotic gesture. But when Cox obliterates their late-night goodwill with a flurry of expletives, the two immediately turn into bumbling blackmailers, with Linda offering up the CD to the Russians (“Mr. Crapkin?”). Meanwhile, Chad has a run-in with Pfarrer, and Cox hacks up a man on the street with a hatchet in broad daylight, and gets shot. Shades of the infamous foot-in-the-wood-chipper scene from Fargo? Ah, business as usual then.

With its pseudo-convoluted plotting, Burn After Reading pokes precocious fun at the many ‘high-concept’ espionage films that dot the cinematic landscape and the characters that inhabit them. In particular, Cox is the brassy, ball-busting antithesis to the strong, silent Bourne types, as is Clooney’s deliciously smarmy agent, whose screamingly funny secret project is an obscene highlight. Linda could be Fargo’s Sheriff Gunderson’s dimmer, vainer, twin sister, and Katie is the proverbial witch with a B that pretty much every strong movie woman is painted to be. All these people are painfully self-involved without a shred of self-awareness, which may make them almost completely unsympathetic, but oh my, are they still fun to watch!

Special mention must go to Pitt, who was Oscar-nominated for his dramatic turn in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but was criminally overlooked for his work here. His blue-eyed seraphim looks have often prevented him from being taken seriously as an actor, but he proves yet again that he has a fine histrionic streak, and, as it turns out, a surprisingly masterful one when it comes to satirizing his own pretty-boy status. Pitt has so much fun playing the himbo with the gravity-defying hairdo (“Appearances can be… deceptive”) – one wishes he were called upon to exercise his funny bone more often.

The Coens’ smart, darkly funny script is relentless in its satirical pot-shots even as it firmly, defiantly, unapologetically stays rooted in farce. It’s not difficult to see why Burn After Reading tends to polarize people; it is a film that stubbornly refuses to take itself seriously even as the characters (and actors) within play it up as if they’re involved in creating high drama rather than skittish black comedy – nothing and no one is left un-skewered. For some that may be off-putting, seeing as there is really no character that invites emotional investment, and neither is there is any growing, any learning for anyone involved. But that’s the beauty of it ultimately, it isn’t out to make a statement, just to provoke a chuckle, which it does in ample amounts.

“Report back to me when any of this makes sense.”

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