BURN AFTER READING (2008, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, 96 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
In the opening shot of the Coen Brother’s cynical-hearted new comedy the camera descends from the Heavens, zeroing in on the surface of the Earth until it swoops into the hallways of C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There a medium-grade analyst named Osgood Cox (John Malkovich) is getting demoted, which will set into motion a ripple of high crimes and misdemeanors that reverberate violently through a group of loosely-connected malcontents in the D.C. suburbs.
The Coen’s have been down this road before, chronicling dim bulbs with violent schemes that go horribly, and usually hilariously, awry. But this time out the satire is more pointed, less buried in picaresque evocations of Hollywood genre pictures past, and aimed more squarely at contemporary American society. In the Coens first film without a lead role, Burn After Reading gives us an ensemble of modern Americans, each more unfulfilled, driven and addled than the next. Malkovich’s Osgood drinks to withstand the withering put-downs of his cheating wife (Tilda Swinton), a pediatrician who hates kids. She’s having an affair with Harry (a manic George Clooney), a married sex addict who builds his own erotic toy contraptions. While cruising the Internet for conquests Harry hooks up with Linda (Frances McDormand), a chirpy fitness instructor whose desperate to start her new life with a planned series of cosmetic surgeries. “This body has taken me as far as it can” she explains to her co-worker at the gym, Chad (Brad Pitt, sporting hilarious boy-band hair).
Each and everyone of these wannabe sharpies imagines they’re in a spy drama where The Agency is the deus ex machina pulling their strings when actually it is their own craven desires that trigger this absurd but deadly mouse trap of a plot into action. Mid-movie, when the C.I.A. chief is given a rundown of the character’s multiple entanglements he does, more or less, nothing. “Get back to me when this all makes sense” the chief shrugs.
It’s an impressive script, with the ensemble cast so stubbornly entangled that the viewer is kept guessing who will give the yank that’s going to send the rest reeling. With the camera work and editing deliberately kept uncharacteristically low-key, the Coens must have given the cast the go-ahead to “go big” with the comedy. A little too big, at times, as when McDormand and Clooney are reduced to bulging-eyed double-takes. Still, there are some real laughs to be had with every character betraying their inner goofball and exactly none containing an ounce of altruism. Burn After Reading is probably the Coens’ coldest look at man’s folly to date — there’s no moral center like Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson on hand to set the story straight and tell us everything is going to be OK. Burn ends not with a bang or a whimper but a shrug. As the credits roll, the camera ascends back into the Heavens where the Coens resume their Olympian perch, looking down with bemused dismay upon us all. A-
KEREN ANN: Chelsea Burns