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DC Folly: The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Focus Features)

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Friday, September 19, 2008


Burn After Reading
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
(Focus Features)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

Burn After Reading is having fun the instant it appears, if you don’t count the chuckles the Coen brothers no doubt had writing it, and the actors performing it. The first shot is of Earth, and America, seen from space, as the credits, displayed in the kind of font you’d see on space flight simulators or The X-Files, blip onscreen. Coens In Space is an amusing idea itself, but the outsized grandiosity of the “shot” is an instant joke considering the comic buffoonery to come. A supersonic version of their sped-up “Raimi zoom” quickly brings the POV hurtling towards CIA headquarters in Langley, where (quoting Point Blank) it tracks the clip-clopping black shoes of an agent on his way down a long hall toward a firing meeting. A shot of John Malkovich in a polka-dot bowtie finally lets the air out of the portentous space-and-spies intro, where it stays until the final zoom-out back to the outer limits.

Malkovich is Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst being fired for alcoholism (and a profane rage problem). Trained to assume corruption by DC potboilers from The Parallax View to JFK, the audience might assume (with Cox) that the firing is political. But back at home in Georgetown he’s soon slamming highballs and beginning to dictate a rambling memoir into a recorder, while slouched over chair and stool like an empty robe. That Cox was rightly dismissible is the joke that begets every other in this cannily ludicrous farce.

A house party at the Coxes’ brings ex-Secret Serviceman Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who is sexing Mrs. Cox (Tilda Swinton) and an array of other DC-area ladies. To buttress her impending case for divorce, Katie Cox puts some of her husband’s memoir on a readable CD that her lawyer’s secretary loses at her gym, Hardbodies, where it falls into the hands of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Chad and Linda are the kind of doltish-happy people who think reality is The Pelican Brief, so they’re soon trying to use this “secretive shit” to extort Cox for money to pay for expensive nip-and-tuck surgeries, sadly not covered by Hardbodies’ HIP, for Linda.

The madness of the plot and performances are tethered to recognizable human behavior thanks to the clean, formal lines of the visuals. The DP is Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Children of Men), who is thankfully more in tune with the Coen-regular Roger Deakins of Fargo and No Country for Old Men than the sepia-toning kineticist of O Brother Where Art Thou?. The movie is also about things — stupidity, anger, boredom, murder — that aren’t necessarily funny. It’s what gives even the Pitt dancing, Clooney mugging, and “whatever, fuck it” ending their edge. The tug-of-war between silliness and misanthropy makes it constantly hum, as in the scenes of a now-jobless Malkovich in his home. It’s funny that he’s watching Family Feud, less so when he’s staring bleakly out the window at a grey street, oppressed by free time.

The movie’s broad caricatures mask genuine contempt. Linda twice takes dates to see a comedy romp starring Dermot Mulroney and Claire Danes called Coming Up Daisy (shades of Seinfeld’s ridiculous fake movies like Sack Lunch and Chunnel). Her and Harry’s laughter isn’t sweet, though, but off-puttingly exaggerated — just like Joel McCrea’s in the Sullivan’s Travels sequence it nods to. As in Sturges, there are flashes of sweetness — particularly from Richard Jenkins as the lovelorn gym manager — but it’s the true-ringing trenchancy that stays with you. The characters with the most “heart” are bluntly dispatched, whereas in Fargo and No Country for Old Men they were spared. Burn After Reading is ultimately the bleaker film; you’re laughing, but a little like John Sullivan at Playful Pluto.

One of the reasons the Coens’ movies seem so tightly constructed is that they base the story around an object, like Raising Arizona’s baby or The Big Lebowski and No Country’s bags of money. Here it’s the CD. Like Godard’s girl-and-a-gun, the tactic keeps the core simple even as the details twist into insanity. The disc also brings some of the best lines. When Cox rebuffs their bribery, Linda and Chad take it to the Russian Embassy (actually the Robert Weaver HUD building as shot). The ambassador there looks at the CD, in one of those candy-green cases, and asks, “PC or Mac?” At the gym, Jenkins, not wanting to rock the boat: “I want this out of Hardbodies!” Malkovich’s incredible anger is amusing, but indeed the real comic heroes are the bit players, especially J.K. Simmons and David Rasche in their CIA briefing scenes, which, like Monty Python or The Kids in the Hall, imagine people in power as black-hearted boobs.

An A-list cast working with an almost too-zany plot-puree could have meant insufferableness, and it would not have taken much — overt Buck Fush-isms or a single additional megastar, even — to snark it over the edge. But Burn After Reading maintains comic balance, and after so many smart, gutsy Coen movies (many in the note of madcap), that shouldn’t be a surprise.

 

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