Watching Burn After Reading, the new Coen brothers’ spy comedy, you get the feeling that being a cast member in it must have been a tedious, repetitive process. And it’s not because these are green or untalented actors unfit for the demands put to them by the recently Best Picture-winning and, for over two decades, consistently brilliant writer-director-producer pair. Quite the opposite. The cast here has some real acting chops. There are Coen mainstays George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and J.K. Simmons right alongside Hollywood veterans Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton.
So there are some people here capable of giving thoughtful, layered performances, if their characters call for it and the director wants it. But in Burn, the reply to that classic actor’s question, “What’s my motivation here?” must have always come back the same, for every character, in every scene: “Vapid, obstinate, unrelenting self-interest.” Burn, written while the brothers were making the Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men, is a ludicrous, one-joke farce, and that tone is reflected in its one-dimensional characters. Still, for all its silliness and nihilism—and because of them—Burn is surprising, insightful, and hilarious throughout.
Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst and alcoholic who, insulted by a recent demotion, has just quit his job and decides to write a tell-all memoir. Meanwhile, his wife Katie (Swinton), an ice-cold pediatrician who screams at her pre-school patients, has been cheating on him with the brash, sex-obsessed federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney). Now that her husband is at his lowest point, out of a job, out of prospects, and sinking deeper into alcoholism, she wants out. But first, at the advice of her divorce lawyer, she copies her husband’s financial information, and the draft of the memoir, onto disk.
The disk ends up in the hands of two gym employees: delusional half-wit Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), and Linda Litzke (McDormand), a woman who can’t understand why her insurance company won’t pay for the four cosmetic surgeries she wants. When they look at it and see some intriguing key words, they decide to blackmail Cox.
The CIA, which has been tracking Cox, has become convinced that there might actually be some sensitive information on the disk, even though agents are confused about what’s really going on. (In one scene a CIA higher-up responds to a report on the affair with, “Get back to me when this all starts making sense, I guess.”) Suffice to say—and without giving away too many plot points—wackiness, violence, and wacky violence all ensue as a result.
Because of their narcissism, greed, or, in the CIA’s case, all-consuming need for secrecy, everybody in this film fails to see the fairly innocuous bigger picture, and thus the whole thing gets blown wildly out of proportion. And that’s the source of most of the comedy in Burn After Reading. These people, who are all either professional spies or people who’d like to be, all fail to do what spies are supposed to do—namely, listen and communicate effectively. The characters are so self-involved that even when they’re sitting in the same room, there’s a concrete slab between them.
Coen brothers fans are used to ensemble casts and big, convoluted stories. But they’re also used to a clear protagonist—or, in some cases, antagonist—who acts as an emotional anchor in the midst of all the slowly unraveling chaos. Take Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski or Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurth in No Country for Old Men. But in Burn, the Coens just take a big group of idiots and have them crash into each other like human bumper cars for an hour and a half.
Making a movie about people like that is a challenging proposition, for both filmmakers and audiences, who, in general, like to have some empathy. The end result might be minor a Coen brothers’ film, but it’s still a Coen brothers’ film, and a very entertaining one at that.