Burn After Reading

Focus Features
The Coen Brothers / USA 2008

Believe it or not, the gleefully nonsensical spy caper Burn After Reading is a mirror reflection of the Coen Brothers’ Oscar winner last year, No Country for Old Men. Except this time around they’ve gone back to the beginning with an exceedingly hilarious black comedy. In both films, a small-time loser discovers stolen property and, in an attempt to profit off of it, finds himself in way over his head. Burn After Reading, played for laughs by two directors clearly in prankish moods and never above inflicting their sadism with audiences, is the flipside of the Coen’s existential dread, but no less…serious. Just because you’re laughing doesn’t make their now famous existential nihilism any less palpable.

Events are set in motion when a longtime CIA analyst, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an angry alcoholic in a loveless marriage with the world’s iciest pediatrician (Tilda Swinton), is unceremoniously fired. Deciding to write a tell-all book about his years at the intelligence agency, the disk on which his notes are stored is lost and found by Hardbodies Gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), an empty-headed personal trainer and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman desperate to raise money for cosmetic surgery.

Believing they’ve stumbled upon vital national secrets, Linda and Chad first try to blackmail Cox and when that doesn’t work, they attempt to sell the information to the Russians. But none of them are aware that their lives and harebrained schemes are interconnected through paranoid federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married lothario carrying on two simultaneous affairs with Linda and Cox’s wife. All the while, Linda’s increasingly erratic behavior grieves her boss Ted (Richard Jenkins), who pines after her from afar.

Burn After Reading pokes fun at America’s political institutions as well as its vanity, greed and self-absorption. Farce, not satire is the aim of the game. Everyone in this film is an idiot. Stupid is as stupid does. And as a result, things will end badly for a great many people. Of course spycraft is merely a convenient MacGuffin for the Coens to concoct a story of deep dread and convoluted nonsense. Burn After Reading is an entry into the post-modern, screwball Theater of the Absurd, the dramatic literary term used to describe a production in which characters are caught in an endless loop of repetitive meaninglessness.

Every member of this top-notch cast looks to be having the time of their lives. Malkovich plays the sort of character he’s turned into high art — a volcanic temper leading to an inevitable explosion. Pitt is scene-stealingly hilarious, a dim-witted nincompoop with enough quirks and ticks to last a lifetime. Equally excited to shed his leading man image and flirt with self-parody is Clooney, who has already proven (in two other Coen Brothers films no less) that broad comedy is not out of his reach. McDormand, wife of Joel Coen and star of the delicious black comedy Fargo is, of course, most at home, perfectly mixing misery and mania. Swinton is dipped in acid and the always-wonderful Jenkins is a perfect straight man foil.

But perhaps the funniest scenes occur between two bit characters (David Rasche and J. K. Simmons), CIA officials who comment on the absurdity of the situation and the escalating violence like a pair of Greek choruses.

“Report back to me when it makes sense,” Simmons says. He’s going to be waiting a hell of a long time.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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