Anyone who thinks the Coen brothers consciously alternate their more serious films with wackier, palate-cleansing comedies hasn’t been paying much attention. Sure, their new film Burn After Reading is a slapstick romp compared to the angsty bloodletting of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. But even the bros’ most slate-faced thrillers (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink) are filled with sneaky black humor. By the same token, their most screwball comedies (The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy) are lined with grim moments that in other hands would be the stuff of horror films. Steve Buscemi being fed into a wood chipper in Fargo: Is that the Coens being funny or grisly? The answer is simple: Both, baby.
Burn After Reading is a laugh-out-loud comedy, a spy-thriller spoof, a merciless parody of “American intelligence” (in more than one sense of the term) and a film that’s liable to be labeled a “minor” effort in the overall Coen canon. But it still manages to milk the majority of its laughs from a bitter, misanthropic opinion of the human race and the inevitable, bloody consequences of its characters’ actions. In other words: It’s classic Coen.
As with most Coen efforts, the boys have assembled a hotshot cast of Hollywood pals, most playing hilariously against type. John Malkovich is Osbourne Cox, a snotty, Princeton-educated CIA analyst who gets booted from his job and decides to channel his alcohol-soaked anger into writing a self-serving tell-all book (which he arrogantly calls his “mem-wahhh”). Tilda Swinton is Katie, his seemingly frigid wife, who’s having an affair with jock-ular sex addict Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney). Meanwhile, on the other side of Washington, D.C., man-hungry Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is working at Hardbodies Gym, saving her every paycheck to fund the cosmetic surgery she feels she so desperately needs. Her co-worker is bubbleheaded, iPod-addicted Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who comes across as a not-so-distant cousin of the Coens’ incoherent icon Jeff Lebowski. What brings these two groups together is a computer disc of Osbourne’s “mem-wahhh,” left behind in the gym locker room. Unscrupulous Linda and Chad decide to blackmail Osbourne by selling all his “secrets” to the Russians. (Not that they actually know any Russian spies, but they do give it the old college try, with a random trip to the Russian Embassy.)
The plot, which involves an increasingly strange spiral of interactions between these nutty characters, isn’t really worth detailing. Simply watching it all unfold is half this film’s chaotic joy. The other half is watching the Coens’ handpicked staff have a hoot messing about in the skins of these mostly idiotic characters. Malkovich puts extra effort into making his character a Brobdingnagian dick. “You’re part of a league of morons,” he bellows, indicting just about everyone in the cast. McDormand stands out as well with her combination of romantic yearning and low self-esteem. “I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me,” she tells her plastic surgeon in what amounts to a very funny jab at McDormand’s position in beauty-crazed Hollywood. Pitt looks like he’s just having a lighthearted laugh as the frosty-haired, dunderheaded pretty boy many have assumed him to be. And Clooney deftly rounds out his Coen “Idiot Trilogy” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and this capper) with a somewhat subtler role. His scenes with McDormand hint at a sweet, rather realistic human connection.
Of course, this is the Coen brothers, and it wouldn’t be a Coen brothers film without violence, murder and a bit of shooting (oh, and some nastiness involving a hatchet). Those looking for a heavy message won’t find it here. (I daresay they won’t find one in No Country for Old Men, either.) This one is all about the laughs. Those hoping for the comic heights of The Big Lebowski aren’t likely to give this film the same level of cult-like dedication. Lacking the guiding hand of The Dude and his Zen-stoner philosophy, this ensemble jest fest leans toward the scattershot. Still, Burn After Reading proves the Coens are definitely back on track, delivering demented comedy for jaded audiences in need of some juicing.