, 96 min, 2008
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (written by)
Stars: Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney
The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, their slap-happy and often hilarious follow-up to their 2007 Best Picture Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, is the 180 degree opposite: an off-the-wall, and over the moon, and outta orbit spy thriller combined with a loopy, quirky and often hilarious sex farce. And that’s not even counting when it’s parodying those disciplines. Then again, the Coens have never let discipline be their strongsuit, and it shows here with a labyrinthine plot that is at the service of what is essentially a stylistic exercise and an extreme examination of the far shores of human (if cartoonish) behavior.
George Clooney is a State Department lothario who’s married, obsessed with running, and building a “mysterious” device in his basement (the less said here, the better). He and his “cold stuck-up bitch” of a wife – a children’s book author – are friendly…ish with an alcoholic, short-tempered, profanity-prone (and thus fired) CIA man (John Malkovich) and his “cold stuck-up bitch” of a wife – a harsh, ill-equipped pediatrician (Tilda Swinton). Clooney is having an affair with Swinton, and “getting ready to leave” his wife “without hurting her.” Meanwhile, through contrivances and convolutions only the Coens could conceive of, a CD containing the top secret memoirs of the new “retiree” Malkovich ends up in the hands of a couple of bumbling, hapless, hopelessly upbeat and ridiculously misguided gym trainers (Frances McDormand and the never-funnier Brad Pitt!). They then try to blackmail Malkovich, and to give away any more would be cheating at Scrabble. Suffice to say, by the time we get J.K. Simmons (Juno’s dad) as a befuddled and baffled CIA director (he’s even more confused than the audience at this juncture), the Coens have woven an utterly insane, and quite ingenious web of stupidity, idiocy and more stupidity, grafted to a crime plot that is ludicrous and hilarious in equal measure.
To call this the antithesis of No Country for Old Men is something of an understatement. I was curiously more reminded of The Big Lebowski and Fargo – the former because of the far extremities of quirkiness to which their fancy dictates the Coens must flock, and the latter not-the-least because of a final mini-monologue summing up the moral – or lack thereof – delivered in pitch-perfect monotone by Simmons, which recalls a bit the simpler and yet more eloquent speech given by McDormand “to” her suspect at that film’s end.
I really loved the initially annoying and ultimately charming McDormand, who brings her best Fargo-ness to the inexplicably insecure gym trainer Linda Litzky (“I’ve gone about as far as I can in life with this body”). Her misguided attempts at Internet dating, as well as her goal to attain a “new and improved me,” are funny, sweet and surprisingly touching. Richard Jenkins is wonderful in a small, adorable supporting role as her manager Ted, who pines for her not so subtly (though it goes right over her head). No surprise then that he’s the sole voice of reason for most of the film. And Brad Pitt. What can you say about the clueless perpetual couch-surfing stoner from Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) in a hairdo owing more than a bit to his title role in Tom DiCillo’s Johnny Suede (1991)? He gets laughs with simple eyebrow twinges, a few gestures, and some hilarious dialogue.
Due to a rough start, Burn After Reading may be far from perfect, and it’s not quite in the pantheon of the Coens’ best work. Still, it is certainly one of the funniest films of the year.