Now that they have properly bounced back from a past string of timid failures with last year’s Oscar®-winning No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers return with their film, Burn After Reading, to one of their old favorite subjects: comically dimwitted screw-ups with deadly possibilities. When they know what they are doing and keep their smirks and winks in check just enough to properly and sincerely define their characters, the duo can provide uproarious laughs out of perpetual idiocy. Using the characters’ idiocy, they also take their trademark gleeful, satirical potshots at a particular genre; this time, the spy and espionage thriller.
The movie, after the opening credits that display the genre staple of red digital readouts with the requisite sound effects, begins with John Malkovich as Osborne Cox, an alcoholic CIA operative being informed that he is now demoted (I certainly would hate to be the man having to demote or fire John Malkovich). He in turn decides to retire early to write his own memoir, much to the chagrin of his icily witchy wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton). She, however, has already been thinking of leaving him anyway as she is having an affair with federal marshal Henry Pfarrer (George Clooney).
For an ex-CIA agent, Osborne is, like most every other character in the movie, too dim to detect that while Katie does not realize that the already married Pfarrer can never really be faithful to anyone. But what really set off Osborne and the main plot are two exercise trainers, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). The latter has apparently found the CD that contains Osborne’s work thus far on his memoir, and he and Linda figure they could try to get money from Osborne in exchange for the CD in order to pay for Linda’s plastic surgery. Osborne, of course, can hardly take this kind of blackmail that
The screwball plot gets much more complicated than that as the Coen brothers can often do with the back of their hands while giving their films a highly polished look (this time, being almost brightly garish, working for the first time with cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki). But they also handle the material here with a measure of sincerity in their dark comedy to prevent it from being just another detached, smirking five-finger exercise, which had been the case with their past screwy comedies like The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy. Good comedy, no matter how silly or bizarre, most always requires a nugget of humanity that we can understand, if not identify with, and we see it when the first shot of Linda is of a doctor pinching her extra aging fat on her waist, thighs and legs (which is certainly bold of McDormand or perhaps the body double) and how she wants to rid herself of it to continue running the gym.
We also see it in how the A-list actors (most of whom are taking nice breather roles from serious movies) really comically commit to the myopic madness of their characters, much like Jeff Bridges did with the slacker Dude in The Big Lebowski. Pitt in particular is very funny as the purest, most eccentric Coen character, an iPod-obsessed gym instructor who, when Osborne threatens him saying, “Your empty little head will be spinning faster than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle,” can only glee that he recognized the bike was a Schwinn. As for Coens regular, Frances McDormand, she wonderfully plays the sincere catalyst of the plot with some of the same relentlessly chirpy attitude of her state trooper character, Marge Gunderson in the great
Meanwhile, on the other side, from the moment we see John Malkovich’s misanthropic hothead character, we sense that violence will erupt and punctuate the comedy at some point. Swinton, as his wife, could actually literally be called a hothead with her flame-shaped hairdo though she is far steelier and icier in her demeanor (which she probably had to be to stay married somehow to Osborne). Clooney, on the other hand, gets to utter the latest weirdo phrase from the Coens, “lactose reflex” in role three of his unofficial “idiot trilogy” that started with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. There are also David Rasche as Osborne’s CIA superior and J.K. Simmons as his agency boss who get some of the movie’s best punch lines, which I will not spoil, and are hilarious in the closing scene precisely because they are the wrong people asking the right questions (although it does seem to come a little abruptly).
Burn After Reading is enjoyable but probably minor fare for the Coen brothers, much like The Big Lebowski was their more “playful” follow-up to their transcendent masterpiece,