Burn After Reading
Director: Ethan & Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
Following the intense drama No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers return to their sweet spot—deadpan black comedies about losers. With Burn After Reading they take on the spy genre in an age when political thrillers are particularly imbued with sociological commentary. Here, their commentary seems to be that there are losers everywhere you go, and our hyped-up age of espionage and the technological eradication of privacy is stocked with the same old human venality.
The result, with a top-grade cast cutting loose in the Coens’ weird universe, is a fun and unpredictable romp that delivers their trademark combination of laughably bland screwups and unexpected violence.
Okay, try to keep up: John Malkovich is an arrogant bastard of a CIA analyst who gets canned from the Agency by a bunch of faceless bureaucrats who might as well be running a vacuum-cleaner factory in the mid-fifties. His wife is an icy bitch played by Tilda Swinton, who’s sleeping around with a federal marshall played by George Clooney. Swinton’s preliminary steps to divorce Malkovich put apparently secret “SigInt” materials into the hands of a middle-aged gym flunkie, Frances McDormand, obsessed with plastic surgery she can’t afford, who recruits hapless idiot trainer Brad Pitt in an impromptu game of blackmail that’s clearly informed by too many cheap Hollywood thrillers. She meets an increasingly edgy Clooney through a skeevy online dating service, and further complications ensue.
The plot is entirely powered by the pedestrian selfishness of the characters. They’re cheaters, embittered schemers, pathetic losers, and sometimes even sympathetic sad sacks. There are sly digs at espionage thrillers, both with some unskilled cloak and dagger work and in the online dating rendezvous, in which blind dates meet in public, on park benches like spies out of some Graham Greene or John Le Carre novel. The machinery of government, the powerful and clever forces filling Bourne and Bond movies, are useless, clueless, operating on some stratum so far removed from our human level that, in the figure of J.K. Simmons, they can neither figure out what’s going on, nor manage to care.
The deadpan humor will be offputting for some. It’s dark, and this is not the wild comedy of Raising Arizona, nor the broader Dude-fueled laughs that abide in The Big Lebowski. There’s a touch of claustrophobic weirdness, without being as deeply insane as Barton Fink. Group it closer to The Hudsucker Proxy, if you’re a Coen aficionado.
The film entertains by combining broad acting, straight-faced absurdity and a willingness not to simplify plot or themes. After a summer of action excess, it’s the perfect gentle descent into autumn, both intelligent and slapstick-goofy. America’s best filmmaking team remain in solid form.