Burn After Reading

All the Academy Awards that Joel and Ethan Coen won for No Country for Old Men produced an unintended effect: It made the outlaw brothers respectable. That's got to be driving them nuts. (Have any Oscar winners ever looked more miserable on camera?) Luckily, the idiot-boy side of the Coens barrels out whenever prestige threatens to choke their rebel spirit. Blood Simple begat Raising Arizona, Barton Fink begat The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo begat (hello, stoner heaven) The Big Lebowski. For me, the only time the slide into silly didn't work was when The Man Who Wasn't There begat the twin low points in the Coen canon, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers.

Burn After Reading will have No Country converts running for cover. Instead of a subtle walk through Cormac McCarthy territory, the brothers have conjured a crazy-quilt comic thriller that takes on our growing national stupidity in the form of a sex farce. The result is wildly funny, but just as wildly uneven. Such things happen when the Coens wield their wit like a blunt instrument. But if their control falters this time by pressing too hard on the "quirky" button, it's still a small price to pay for their indisputable daring.

The movie begins with an aerial map of the U.S. as the camera — in a game of "pin the tail on the donkey" — lands on the Beltway, where assholes wag in profusion. At CIA headquarters, perpetually pissed-off analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, never funnier or more frazzled) quits his post before he can be demoted for drunken incompetence. He tells Katie (Tilda Swinton), his doctor wife, that he plans to write his memoirs. "Who'd read that?" she says. Props to the freshly Oscar-ed Swinton for flashing a delicious look of contempt that could freeze lava.

Katie secretly initiates divorce proceedings; after all, she's been having it off with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married federal marshal with a mania for dildos and quality flooring. Osborne's mania is for revenge. Though far from Jason Bourne, he dictates his spying secrets onto a computer disk, which ends up on the floor at the Hardbodies Fitness Center, run by Ted Treffon (the invaluable Richard Jenkins), a former Greek Orthodox priest who yearns for employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Linda yearns only for cosmetic surgery, starting on her butt. Sadly, liposuction and breast enlargement cost money that Linda's insurance won't cover. So she and her Hardbodies BFF, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — two bungling birdbrains — grab the disk and set out to squeeze $50,000 out of Osborne or go to the Russian Embassy. Presto, people get punched, shot, burned and dead. Hey, it's a Coen brothers movie.

The body politic and the body beautiful, both built on American fantasies, deserve a mighty whacking, but the Coens' ability to hit the target is frustratingly hit-and-miss. The movie takes flight (watching Pitt and McDormand blackmail Malkovich is primo fun), then dips, along with our expectations. It's the A-game actors who bring this baby home. Pitt is dynamite, killing every trace of his trademark cool. His Chad — hair streaked, eyes untroubled by thought, body gyrating to an iPod tune only he hears — is a potent comic creation. He's also quite charming, especially so when he drives Malkovich to f-bomb-throwing fulmination by repeating his name, as in "Osborne Cox? Is this Osborne Cox?" Malkovich's slow burn is priceless. Clooney makes Harry a hilarious collection of loose screws, a sex-crazed serial computer-dater who is armed and extremely demented — not a good combo. Still, cheating on his wife and his mistress is how Harry connects to Linda and how she connects to the erotic surprise Harry erects in his basement. Clooney, Pitt and McDormand do things the Three Stooges would have flinched at. But they're working for the Coens, who use Burn After Reading to put a solid distance between themselves and all things stuffy.

Detractors who bemoan Coen brothers films for their lack of an emotional core will find evidence here to throw the book at them. You'll uncover more people worth rooting for in the Bush administration. And yet the Coens, aided and abetted by the esprit de screwball of production designer Jess Gonchor, costumer Mary Zophres, composer Carter Burwell and the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men), present for the skewering a superficial society easily recognizable as our own. The film is blissfully free of speechmaking. That also goes for coherence. In a climactic rush to tie up loose ends, a CIA honcho, wryly played by JK Simmons, tells a functionary to report back to him only when "it all makes sense." Burn After Reading never does make sense. It simply makes merry mincemeat of an America steeped in vanity, greed and ignorance, a place where selling your soul doesn't amount to much, since everyone's doing it. But why scold the brothers too hard for acting silly? It would be no country for movie lovers without the Coens. They still manage to run unmuzzled while the rest of Hollywood runs scared.

From The Archives Issue 300: September 20, 1979
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