Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), John Malkovich (Osborne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Richard Jenkins (Ted), Elizabeth Marvel (Sandy Pfarrer), David Rasche (CIA Officer), J.K. Simmons (CIA Superior), Olek Krupa (Krapotkin).
Burn After Reading is the red headed step child of late Coen brothers movies – the one no one talks about very much. Debuting a year after No Country for Old Men – and a year before A Serious Man – two of the brothers very best films, Burn After Reading felt to many to be little more than a lark for the brothers – a fun way to recharge their batteries after something as heavy as No Country. The presence of movie stars like George Clooney and Brad Pitt assured that the film was a sizable hit for the brothers – but the film came and went getting mostly good, but not great, reviews, and then was pretty much forgotten. While I will admit that Burn After Reading is obviously a “minor” Coen film – that doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful in its own way. It is the funniest film they’ve made since O Brother, Where Art Thou for one thing – filled with great comedic performances, no one more so than Pitt, who is gloriously stupid in the film. While No Country for Old Men is what I would call a timeless film – a film that will remain relevant for a long time, and really could have been set at any time after WWII right up to the present day, Burn After Reading is much more a product of the time and place it was made. In many ways, it is even somewhat ahead of its time – if only by a few years. If Burn After Reading were released in 2013 for example, you could have easily have lumped it in with films such as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring – three very different films, but all of which concentrate basically on rather dumb characters who all feel entitled to their share of the American Dream – but don’t feel they need to work for it – they just want to reap the awards. Bay’s film in particular feels like a pumped up version of Burn After Reading in many respects – something I noted at the time. Watching the film again, I enjoyed it just as much as the first few times I watched it back in 2008.
The film opens with CIA operative Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) being informed that he is being moved to a less sensitive area – he’s a drunk and they don’t want him handling classified information. He’s furious, and quits on the spot – much to the dismay of his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), a doctor who laughs at Osborne when he tells her he wants to write his memoirs (which Malkovich pronounces in only a way he could). Katie pretty much already hates Osborne – she’s been sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) – a U.S. Marshall for a while, and him quitting makes her finally decide to get a divorce. Harry, is also married (and building a complex marital aid in his basement for his wife), but in addition to sleeping with Katie, he also goes online to pick up random women for sex.
Two idiot gym employees – Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who wants a host of plastic surgery because she’s “gotten as far as this body” will take her, and is furious with her HMO for denying her claim and Chad (Brad Pitt), who likes to bike everywhere, and dance around like an idiot – find a disk in the gym’s locker room. On that disk they find Cox’s memoirs – and a host of what Chad assumes is some “super-secret shit” – and decide that this is their ticket to financial freedom. If Osborne Cox wants his shit back, he’s going to pay for it.
What happens from there, I won’t spoil, as the film twists and turns – and becomes surprisingly violent, in a comedic way, as the bodies start to pile up. The two best scenes in the movie may well be between David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, as two C.I.A. agents who cannot figure out what the hell is going on, who all the players are, or if they should do anything about it or not – so it’s probably better just to sweep the whole thing under the rug (“I’m fucked if I know what we did”).
Burn After Reading is about a culture of idiots – where CIA agents are really no smarter than idiot gym employees, everyone feels entitled to something they cannot have, and no one takes responsibility for anything. In short, it’s about the culture the Coens see around every day, as the CIA gets involved in one conflict after another, but cannot figure out what the hell they’re doing – and the American people are too stupid to figure it out either. It is a deeply cynical film about modern American culture, wrapped up in a screwball comedy package. It’s a wonderful package at that – Clooney is normally an actor who radiates intelligence – but here, he’s at his most gloriously stupid and dense. Pitt makes a fool out of himself for our enjoyment – and damn it, if he shouldn’t have gotten an Oscar nomination for his troubles. McDormand has never been out and out funnier than she is here as an insecure woman, willing to do anything to get what she wants. Malkovich has great fun screaming for his entire performance. And Tilda Swinton looks at everyone with withering contempt. It’s a great ensemble cast – as all Coen movies have.
To a certain extent, the critics who complained that Burn After Reading was little more than the Coens goofing off are correct. This isn’t them at their best – their most incisive. But it is them at their funniest. If this is them just goofing off, it’s still better than most filmmakers at their best.