Scenario: You’re a director. Your last film received a level of acclaim unprecedented in your career and won an upset Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. Question: What do you follow it up with? Answer: Well if you’re the Coen Brothers, you totally fuck with the expectations of your growing critical respectability by following No Country For Old Men with a burlesque, wanton, scatter shot of a movie like Burn After Reading. There was much rubbing of jaws and scratching of heads after this one. Even those critics who confessed to liking Burn After Reading, did so in a rather quizzical and wary fashion. Just what were those crazy Coen Brothers up to? Ingenuously pursuing their own idiosyncratic career trajectory, or deliberately messing with peoples’ heads? Not much point in asking them, they’d probably deny everything anyway. Maybe the critics just need to lighten up and stop fretting so damn much. Burn After Reading is a deliciously acerbic dose of off the cuff comedy. Even accepting that it’s something of an impromptu, throwaway effort by their usual standards, there’s plenty here for the Coen Brothers aficionado to savour.
It’s not easy to provide any kind of plot summary for Burn After Reading. It’s a movie that appears labyrinthine in construction, before totally folding back in on itself, as if nothing at all of consequence had actually taken place. And that, of course, is part of the joke. A pair of fecklessly good natured dimwits, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) discover a disk containing secret CIA documents at the “HardBodies” Gym in which they work. As Chad puts it, it’s some “highly classified shit”.Linda, desperate for a plastic surgery operation, hatches a plan to blackmail the CIA into paying for the return of the information. Only it turns out that the “secret” information is really just the rambling memoir of a recently fired low level CIA operative, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) who is now out for blood. Linda hooks up with sex-crazed Treasury Agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) through an internet dating service, who just happens to be carrying on an affair with Osbourne Cox’s wife. The CIA become embroiled in the affair when Linda and Chad attempt to sell the “secret documents” to a Russian embassy. The total bungling misunderstanding of circumstances on the part of all parties involved leads to a situation of escalating chaos… and a fair lashing of the old ultra-violence.
“Not a plausible story” – many reviewers have sniffed, as if this counted as points against the movie. Well of course it’s not a plausible story! Burn After Reading is intended to be a farce. In the traditional sense of that word, in which exaggerated characters engage in ever more improbable situations to comic effect. You’ve got to wonder if some movie critics are incapable of reading what they see in anything but the most narrowly literal of contexts. Actually, though, a look at recent history might suggest that Burn After Readingis not quite so implausible as it first appears. Incompetent G-Men interpreting information incorrectly to catastrophic effect? Surely that kind of thing just doesn’t happen? And yeah, Saddam Hussein really did have WMD, while pink giraffes float on space clouds to Mars. As a satire of the CIA, Burn After Reading is pretty much dead-on. An increasingly irrelevant organisation that places way too much importance in itself, spending a bunch of money on investigating dead ends to disaster. What’s funny about Burn After Readingis that the CIA spends more time covering up their colossal fuck-ups than they do turning up anything that’s practical. It’s not so much an organisation of lethally capable super agents as it is a bunch of addle-pated office clerks playing at being 007’s.
But Burn After Readingcan also be read as a satire of American culture. Or maybe just modern consumer culture in general. The essential demented fuckedupedness of everybody. Everybody out there on their own trip, oblivious of everybody else, vain, stupid and relentless in the pursuit of their trivial little ambitions. Take the character of Linda Litzke, brilliantly realised by Frances McDormand. She’s one of the Coen Brothers’ favourite actors, and not without good reason. On the surface of things, Linda is your typical cheery all-American plain Jane type. Not especially bright, perhaps, but seemingly nice enough. But Linda has just decided that her life will be worthless from now on unless she gets those plastic surgery enhancements she’s been dreaming about. “Ive gotten about as far as this body can take me”she says. She’s made up her mind, so that’s it. She’s not going to let anything get in her way, no matter what the consequences. The appearance of some secret agent documents is like manna from heaven. It’s an opportunity to manipulate somebody into getting what she wants, no matter how inconceivably stupid her actions might be. That’s modern life in a nutshell.
Pretty much every character in this film is dysfunctional, petty minded, mean spirited or a plain fuckwit. Like George Clooney, who plays a womanising simpleton who is anything but suave. There’s a nice side joke in the film in which Clooney’s character appears to be building something of secretive importance in his basement. Considerable screen time is spent on the apparent shadiness of his activity, complete with the use of dramatically suspenseful music and suspicious glances at potential pursuers. But when it’s revealed what he’s actually building… well lets not give it away, but it’s probably worth the price of admission alone. But best of all, maybe, is John Malkovich’s snarling, misanthropic Osbourne Cox, a man so perpetually irksome and unpleasantly obnoxious that he takes on a kind of savage glee. The scenes between Malkovich and Brad Pitt, with Pitt’s dismally incompetent attempts to extort money, are priceless.
Again, what we’ve got here is a set of not too bright characters getting into a situation way above their heads, the staple of nearly every Coen Brothers movie. Like a jazz player, they seem to find endlessly interesting variations to play through the same riff. They can play the same theme for another dozen movies as far as I’m concerned. In their hands, it never seems to get old. There’s a curiously consistent thread of critical complaint levelled at the Coen Brothers: that they don’t have sufficient “respect” for their own characters. Well, they make movies about characters who don’t merit much respect. I suspect that what these critics really mean is that there’s nobody to root for. But do we really have to identify with a character on some kind of postive level in order to enjoy a movie? Not if it’s as wickedly funny as Burn After Reading. This is a black, lacerating and cruel kind of humour – the best kind of humour that there is.