Over the years, the Coen brothers have become the movie equivalent of an inconstant lover. Theyre almost always charming and witty and creative, and sometimes they come through with a Fargo, so for a second you think there might actually be a long-term relationship there. But then theyll stand you up at a restaurant and laugh at you for getting mad, and you realize that whatever matters to you, it sure doesnt matter to them.
Burn After Reading stands us up at the restaurant and things were going so well, too. After being richly rewarded for the dark, uncompromising vision that was last years No Country for Old Men, the Coens have returned to what they like best, which is goofing around with their buddies.
The new film, a slapstick farce in which a number of big Hollywood stars play middle-class boneheads, is set in Washington, D.C. This has led some to seek a political interpretation in the pratfalls; I assure you, no such interpretation exists. John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a rageaholic ex-CIA functionary who has written his memoirs, hoping theyll burn Langley down. Instead, the disc containing the manuscript ends up in the possession of two idiot health-club employees, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand).
They decide to shake Osborne down, threatening to take the information to the Russians if he doesnt play ball. (The vaguely embarrassed expression on a cultural attache at the Russian embassy is one of the movies better jokes.) Working at cross-purposes to these three are Osbornes unhappy wife (Tilda Swinton) and her macho twit of a boyfriend (George Clooney).
The computer disc is a MacGuffin, as is the entire plot, really; the entertainment here lies in watching these dumdums twist in their own wind. Burn After Reading is a character comedy, which means everyone behaves like a character. McDormand does rabbity things with her teeth, turning Linda into a self-obsessed, oversexed nerd who cant stop thinking about the plastic surgery she thinks she needs. Clooney, meanwhile, acts with his throat; his character isnt sure what foods hes allergic to and keeps teetering phlegmily on the verge of anaphylactic shock.
Malkovich bellows and swears (hes been given Steve Buscemis speech patterns from Fargo), while Swinton plays an ice-cold control freak nothing new there. Richard Jenkins, as McDormands boss, pines for her with sad-clown eyes, or perhaps hes missing his role from The Visitor. Pitt well, actually, Pitts hilarious. Chad is the one person here not stomping around in a foul mood only because hes too stupid to get angry. Each new idea seems like the first idea Chad has ever had; the act of thinking itself fills him with awe.
Pitts also the only performer here whose shtick seems to rise from character rather than the other way around. Burn After Reading is shallow and proud of it, an antic cartoon that lacks the comic inspiration to go the distance. The biggest laughs dont even come from the main characters but from a pair of deadpan CIA suits (J.K. Simmons and David Rasche) who regularly brief each other on the increasingly preposterous goings-on. They could be the Coens themselves snarking away at their characters. In a way, thats the real show.
I suppose the filmmakers have earned a break. Heck, after No Country, weve earned a break. But the difference between Burn After Reading and much better Coen comedies like Raising Arizona, Fargo, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that the brothers smugness has finally gone over the top. Perhaps winning acclaim and Oscars will do that, but never has one of their movies seemed like such an inside joke. Burn is a party to which the audience isnt invited, its unheard soundtrack the Coens nervous hermetic giggles.
Way back when they got started, with 1984s Blood Simple, the Coens were able to take a dinky story of greed and ineptness and spin it into an epic. Burn manages the opposite: Despite the D.C. setting and international-espionage backdrop, the films pointless enough to make you suspect the artistic maturity of No Country for Old Men may have been just another pose. Whatever talents the Coens possess, Burn After Reading reminds us that meaning it may never be one of them.