Burn After Reading reminds me a little of the Darwin Awards. It’s morbidly absurdist, thoroughly pointless, and can certainly be funny at times, even acutely so, with a freakish bathos that can be hard to look away from. But if you don’t feel a little queasy for laughing, and perhaps you should, you might at least feel bothered that someone wanted to put the whole thing together for your amusement.
The Coen brothers vacillate between poles of darkly comic drama (Blood Simple, Fargo) and darkly dramatic comedy (Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?). Following the Oscar success of their nihilistic (as I see it) No Country for Old Men, the Coens have swung back to the comic end of the spectrum.
Whether or not it’s as nihilistic as No Country, Burn After Reading certainly isn’t going to do anything to mitigate the Coens’ long-standing reputation for misanthropy. It’s yet another film in which dim-witted losers spiral haplessly toward disaster, which in this case nearly all of them deserve — not just for being stupid and shallow, but for being venal, faithless or self-centered. The Coens’ characteristic saving grace, common decency, is in painfully short supply here.
Adultery, divorce, blackmail, treason, betrayal, breaking and entering and an extremely bizarre sex toy are the order of the day. This may make it sound as if something important is at stake, but it isn’t. No actual national secrets — just a disc with what two characters are convinced is highly classified material, but turns out to be something far less momentous. And since every spouse cheats and pursues or contemplates divorce, there’s not much at stake there either. (There is a moment of something like pathos when the most promiscuous character in the film, who often talks of divorce to appease his usual lover but has no actual plans to leave his wife, realizes that she’s planning to leave him.)
The only thing that is really at stake, as the film suddenly reminds us with a jerk in the last third or so, is lives. Even that might seem small beer with this gallery of nitwits, but it can’t be a coincidence that the two characters who meet the cruelest fates are the only two that approach likability. Only stupidity, not selfishness, seals their doom; if characters were punished on a moral scale, they’d have been the only ones standing at the end.
Dressed up as an intelligence caper thriller, Burn After Reading opens with familiar rat-a-tat computerized titles and a God-shot of planet Earth swiftly zooming down through clouds to CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, dropping through the roof to follow a pair of clicking dress shoes on a marble floor.
None of these early elements is unusual in itself, but the dramatic drop from the on-high opening emphasizes the extreme low angle at the end of the shot — a disclaimer, perhaps, announcing no lofty intentions, no larger perspective. The Coens offer a worm’s-eye view on the lives of characters who aspire to be more than the worms they are, but can’t rise above themselves. Even when events filter up to a slightly higher level as a CIA boss (J. K. Simmons) gets occasional reports on the muddled proceedings, no pattern or meaning threatens to emerge.
A star-studded cast plays an assortment of buffoons who dress and posture sharper than they are. John Malkovich bristles with righteous maverick indignation in the first scene as CIA analyst Osbourne Cox who falls from grace, but despite his bluster he’s no more than a faulty cog to be replaced. Tilda Swinton, considerably icier here than as the White Witch, plays Harry’s domineering wife Katie, a pediatrician with the bedside manner of your least favorite grade-school teacher.
George Clooney dials down the class and charisma as federal marshal Harry Pfarrer, a self-deprecating, shallow skirt-chaser who is inexplicably having an affair with Osbourne’s wife Katie — inexplicably, not on his end (he’ll sleep with anything), nor because she’s not the type to have an affair (of course she is), but because Harry has not a trace of the drive and ambition Katie’s Type-A sort requires in a lover. (In reality, Katie would be having an affair with another doctor at her practice.) Harry’s wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), an author of children’s books, describes Katie to Harry as “a cold, stuck-up bitch,” and Katie describes Sandy to Harry the same way, and both are right.
The eye of the storm, or the epicenter of the sinkhole, is Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand), a lonely fortysomething addicted to dating sites and obssessed with the plastic surgery she’s convinced will kick her social life into action, if only she can get the financing for it. McDormand is so good that she humanizes this bimbo (who endures perfunctory first-date sex with a cold fish, apparently because she lacks the gumption to say no) for at least the first act or two, until it becomes clear that she’s not getting any better.
That leaves Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a bubble-headed personal trainer at the gym, as well as sad-sack gym owner Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), whose only foible is loving Linda and being afraid to tell her. There’s a minor McGuffin, a lost CD-ROM at the gym that Chad is thrilled to discover contains what he’s sure are highly classified CIA files. Delighted at finding himself in the right place at the right time, Chad basically wants to do the Good-Samaritan thing and return the files to their owner, Osbourne Cox, though he wants to be as cloak and dagger about it as possible. But Linda hears the word “reward,” and visions of surgical enhancement dance in her head.
The characters’ moronic choices provide both the plot engine and the humor. There’s an attempted dropoff of the disc followed by a car chase, glimpses of a mysterious figure in a parked car who always seems to be driving away the moment he’s noticed, intrigue at the Russian embassy, and a number of break-ins. The joke is that none of this is as exciting or important as it sounds; it’s only some of the characters who think something important is happening. As if trying to emphasize the perceived significance, the characters use a lot of foul language, which is also deployed for humor value (ironically, the funniest bits involve one of the milder crudities).
There’s also a lot of bed-hopping, but nothing that works as a bedroom comedy, since there are no surprises and none of it matters. As with many Coen films, there’s also an element that doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, in this case Harry’s lewdly bizarre workshop project, a twisted hint of something other than self-aborption that’s nevertheless hard to see as anything other than misguided on every level.
As with almost every Coen film, almost every element seems deliberate and carefully chosen. Whatever they do, either it works for the viewer or it doesn’t, but they don’t ever really fail, exactly.
For me, Burn After Reading works in fits and starts. I appreciate its ideosyncracy and creativity. I appreciate it; I’m not sure I like it. I can see where Coen fans may adore it. Maybe the very shock value of the cruelty offers some kind of moral perspective. Or maybe it’s just mean. The Coens are happy to let you make of it what you will.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.