In 24 years, they’ve directed only 13 films, so it’s not hard to assume that the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) intend to make every one of them count. Of course, when they actually do, cinematic classics (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) usually result. But sometimes, the Coens simply want to play with the language of film, albeit to limited (Intolerable Cruelty) or unnecessary (their remake of The Ladykillers) effect. While not one of their masterpieces, Burn After Reading indicates that, even in the clichéd arena of affairs of the heart, the boys are capable of something subversive, and quite special.
When a disc filled with what appears to be sensitive government information ends up in the hands of two desperate health club employees, a blackmail plot is hatched. Seems personal trainer Linda (Frances McDormand) wants plastic surgery, convinced it will change her dating life, and airheaded co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) thinks he’s found a way to fund it. All they have to do is find the owner of the data and ask for cash.`What they don’t know is that the statistics are not classified secrets, but financial figures stolen from CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Lifted by his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), it’s part of a planned divorce. Once free, she can hook up with married boyfriend and tripwire Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). He’s a sex addict, and has several women on the side — including Linda. Naturally, when Osborne finally discovers what is happening, he sets several deadly plots in motion.
Treating the typical bed-hopping escapades of power-broking pawns like the most frigid of Cold War thrillers, Burn After Reading represents the Coens riffing on the cutthroat nature of modern romance. This is a film where everyone is under suspicion, no one is loyal, and the facts fail to set anyone free. Standard intelligence gathering wishes it was as covert and ruthless as the mean-spirited methods used by these spies in the house of love. The level of deception and betrayal is practically claustrophobic.
While clearly trying to be a screwball comedy, Burn After Reading is more like a calm and witty rejoinder. There are definite jokes scattered throughout the otherwise intricate plot, a narrative so knotty that it frequently threatens to trip over itself. But where the Coens really excel is in their ability to manipulate outlandish, larger than life personalities. Everyone here, from Clooney’s sleazeball lothario to Pitt’s brain-dead body sculptor seems forged out of a series of carefully combed-through idiosyncrasies. But thanks to their assured direction and by now established way with tone, the brothers buttress any extremes.
In a cast capable of greatness, few fail. Especially wonderful is regular (and Joel Coen spouse) McDormand. As a woman crazily convinced that liposuction will sate her sour self esteem, she tears into her dialogue with a frenzy that reflects her ardent obsession. As a force of nature, she’s all hurricane. Similarly, J.K. Simmons and David Rasche have some wonderful scenes as a pair of CIA officials who can’t make heads or tails of the bumbling backstabbing going on. Like a buttoned-down Greek Chorus, they frequently voice what the audience is feeling. Malkovich, sadly, may be the only one off script here. He delivers his F-bomb laced tirades like it’s the first time foul language has ever crossed his lips.
Indeed, Burn After Reading is made up of minor delights at best. The approach is so unique and dramatically deadpan that, if you don’t catch their weird wavelength right up front, the Coens intend to leave you far, far behind. But if you were hoping for another Raising Arizona, keep the faith. The boys are bound to deliver another nutball delight somewhere down the line. But if you didn’t mind the hit or miss mania of The Hudsucker Proxy, or just find everything these auteurs do to be fascinating, you’ll easily buy what Burn After Reading is selling. It turns out to be a pretty good deal.
The DVD includes three short making-of featurettes.
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