BURN AFTER READINGR
Burn After Reading has quite a pedigree for such a throwaway romp of a movie: three Oscar-winning stars (George Clooney, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton), two Oscar-nominated co-stars (Brad Pitt and John Malkovich), and Oscar-winning writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, straight from last spring’s Academy triumph with No Country for Old Men. The Coens’ latest isn’t about to garner any end-of-the-year trophies; it feels more like an exclusive party where this much-lauded gang can let loose and act as goofy as they please.
That license to mug comes at the expense of the movie. The Coens have been accused by some of showing contempt for their characters, which is an unfair generalization about their work. McDormand’s Fran in Fargo, for instance, may come across as a Minnesota hick, but her decency and moral gravity is what won Mrs. Joel Coen her Best Actress trophy. And no matter how bleak the outcome of No Country for Old Men, you leave the theatre feeling respect for Tommy Lee Jones and sorrow for the doomed couple at the heart of the story.
In Burn After Reading, there’s no one to admire, save for one unlucky gentle soul. Everyone else is a clown or a petty tyrant. Yes, it’s fun to watch formidable actors like Clooney, McDormand, Malkovich and Pitt play the fool, but if you’re looking for a human connection, you’ve come to the wrong movie.
Yet even a minor Coen Brothers film has its inevitable pleasures. Few filmmakers combine such confident visual élan with witty, idiosyncratic screenwriting chops. The story, a Coen original, has some of the twistiness of a Fargo or Miller’s Crossing, but this time the criminals don’t even realize they’re initiating a crime until it’s too late.
Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a veteran CIA analyst who’s fired in the opening scene over his alcoholism. The volatile, vain ex-Company man vows to get even by writing his memoirs, and a computer disk of his jottings accidentally winds up in the possession of two employees at a Washington fitness center, Linda Litzke (McDormand), desperate to raise funds for radical cosmetic surgery, and Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), a frosted blond male bimbo. Linda and Chad think they have something highly classified and valuable on their hands, and their effort to collect a reward for the return of the disk soon escalates into a lunatic case of blackmail.
In the meantime, Osborne’s tightly wound wife Katie (Swinton) is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a federal marshal married to a successful children’s-book author. A compulsive Internet dater, Harry also hooks up with Linda, and the intersecting paths of these people’s lives eventually take some very dark turns.
The Coens have given all their lead characters absurd quirks. Harry is obsessed with potential food allergies and household flooring; Linda is fixated on body-image issues; Chad loses himself in iPod-accompanied aerobics; and Osborne seems awfully rash for a man in intelligence. The directors encourage their stars to play it broad, and they all paint the cartoons in loud colors. Clooney and McDormand have long displayed a knack for comedy, but the surprises here are Pitt, playing amusingly against his sex-symbol image, and Malkovich, who turns in the most consistently funny performance as an affronted egomaniac. Richard Jenkins (star of the recent art-house sleeper The Visitor), as the gym manager with an unrequited crush on Linda, gives an understated performance out of another movie—a surprise when one remembers that he virtually stole the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There.
In one regard, Burn After Reading makes an odd companion piece to No Country for Old Men, as both films center on ordinary people whose poor judgment leads to dire consequences. Ultimately, the Coens’ latest includes some graphic violence that’s of a piece with their big Oscar winner. But the shocks here make a queasy mix with the laughs, and the victims are largely disposable. “Forget after viewing” may be the typical response to the Coens’ slight black comedy.