[21 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The Coen Brothers remains the most predicable unpredictable artists in Hollywood. You can be guaranteed that the minute you think you have them pegged - post-modern nostalgists, retro Hollywood revisionists, kings of meta-mainstream quirk - they turn around and surprise you. They move so easily between genres, exploring film types and formats that should be overly familiar (crime dramas) or elusive (black comedies) to work. And yet here they are, following up their Oscar winning take on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men with another brilliant slab of their slightly surreal satire. Burn After Reading may be second tier Coens at its core, but when you’re dealing with the pair of talents this massive, average remains outstanding.
When he’s demoted to a desk job, CIA field agent Obsourne Cox decides to quit, and simultaneously blow the lid off the bureau with his tell-all memoirs. His wife, Dr. Katie Cox, has been having an affair with tacky Treasury man named Harry Pfarrer and she wants a divorce. Her paramour, on the other hand, is too busy playing the Internet field to commit. Meanwhile, a pair of oddball gym employees - personal trainers Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke - stumble across the CD with Osbourne’s “secrets” on it. She wants plastic surgery to recapture some of her youth. He just wants to help. So it’s time to extort some cash. When Pfarrer finds out that someone is sneaking around, trying to blackmail the Coxes, he takes matters into his hot headed, horndog hands. While Chad and Linda think everything is simple and straightforward, they are unaware of the involvement of forces both friendly, and fiendish.
There is nothing more satisfying than seeing A-list actors working without a safety net of familiarity, and Burn After Reading (now available of DVD from Focus Features) offers such precarious performance pleasures. Where else but in a Coens comedy would we find a sheepish CIA agent, a mean-spirited (and incredibly selfish) Treasury representative, a plastic surgery obsessed gym employee, her dimwitted co-worker, and a series of ancillary individuals who accent and expand on each one and the main players. And when you consider the cast the brothers bring on - Oscar winners George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, along with Academy nominated accomplishes Brad Pitt and John Malkovich - you just know you’re in for a rollicking good time. And indeed, Reading lives up to its reputation. It’s fast, witty, weird, unexpected, grim, clever, and above all, expertly made.
Clearly, the Coens see Washington DC and all its blatant bureaucracy as the stuff of comedy gold. Yet unlike their How to Sort of Succeed in Business By Being a Butthead send-up The Hudsucker Proxy, the US government never loses its War on Terror sheen. This is a post-modern mess of incomplete policies, overtired executives, and a bottomless pit of possibilities when it comes to covering up the flaws in same. The battle between Malkovich and his superiors, Pitt and McDormand and the various glass tower threats, and Clooney and his own innate and ever-growing paranoia are a joy to behold. These stars sink their teeth into the script, wringing laughs out of lines that would seem like nothing but standard federal doubletalk without their efforts. Yet the Coens aren’t beyond moving into areas both uncomfortable (Clooney’s crass sex addiction) or unexpected (the last act bursts of violence) to up the ante.
Indeed, as the Making-of material included as part of the home video release, we see a group of highly paid, often praised professionals clearly working within the confines of a cinematic stage of one-upmanship. Pitt and Clooney are the two biggest clowns, their Oceans 11 - 13 familiarity responsible for more than a little of the onset rowdiness. But Swinton and McDormand are not beyond being goofy. Each one has a history with various members of the cast and crew, and the links allows for a looseness and a camaraderie that clearly shows up onscreen. The Coens make it clear that they like to work with actors in a “theater company” style approach. They have faith they can pull off the differing roles being assigned to them, secure in the knowledge that they are the rights ones to realize their aims.
All throughout Burn After Reading, such strategies clearly complement the narrative. As with many Coen films, the McGuffin-esque element at the center of the story - the CD with all the supposed secrets - is really just a catalyst for conversations, confrontations, and calamities. It allows the inner facets of everyone’s personalities to become manifest, to make the desperate even more frantic, the clueless even less enlightened. This is especially true of Malkovich and his cronies. In a post-millennial world where America has lost its international espionage touch, the bumbling, Keystone cop kind of way these officials flounder around, looking for answers, is just one of Burn After Reading‘s many resplendent charms.
Just be aware that this is Coens coasting at its very best. We’re not talking about literal masterpieces like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, or Fargo. It’s not even the clever cult epics of films like The Big Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou? Instead, this is proof that, when not dealing with ideas outside their control (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), the Coens can come up with a quasi-classic, even in their sleep. It was decades before the duo was finally given the credit they so richly deserved. Amazing how, in one fell awards season swoop, they went from outsiders who were lucky to get financing to auteurs with outsized expectations from both audiences and critics. Burn After Reading is clearly not their best. But even in a lesser state, the Coen Brothers are still astonishing.