Film Reviews

Burn After Reading Joel and Ethan Coen

Rating - 7/10

Less than nine months after their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men collected Best Picture at the 80th Academy Awards, the Coen Brothers return to their usual quirky comedic territory with their latest release, the star-filled comedy Burn After Reading. After previously delving into once classic, but now unfashionable genres such as film noir (2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the screwball comedy (2003’s Intolerable Cruelty), the Coen Brothers’ most recent cinematic offering is a twisted take on the spy caper comedy: a moribund sub-field once mildly popular when the Cold War still frostily raged and the Soviet Union existed as a giant red splodge over most of the northern hemisphere.

Classed as the final entry in the unofficial trio of collaborations between actor George Clooney and Coen Brothers’ known as the “Idiot Trilogy,” the film focuses on five central protagonists, whose divergent lives become interwoven in part due to their own varying degrees of paranoia and stupidity. Split into two converging stories, this spy caper naturally unfolds in the narrow corridors of power at CIA headquarters where the film's central bow-tie sporting culprit, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) learns he is to be dropped from the Balkans desk due to his excessive drinking. 

Rather than suffer the the indignity of a demotion, Princeton alum Osbourne resigns from his post and hatches a frazzled scheme for self-redemption and revenge. Nevertheless, his plan to craft his tell-all memoirs receives little support from his unmoved pediatrician wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who instead frets over their newfound sole income, glitzy dinner parties and maintaining the nightly bedding of their mutual friend Harry (George Clooney) on Osbourne's boat without his knowledge. 

The aforementioned trio are soon joined by the film's other protagonists, a pair of naive fitness trainers from a Washington area gym socio-economically adrift from Georgetown's quaint townhouses and evening romps on the Potomac. Denied funding for cosmetic surgery deemed unnecessary by her health insurer, image-obsessed trainer Linda (Frances McDormand) yearns for a quick influx of cash to solve her problems. When her harebrained friend Chad (Brad Pitt) stumbles across a disc found in the women's locker room consisting of suspected CIA secrets, the maladroit duo believe Linda's financial problems have been solved. Yet, their subsequent attempt to extort $50,000 from the disc’s irritable owner leads the innocent-minded Chad and Linda into an unfamiliar world of paranoia and unforeseen outcomes. 

Fresh from their greatest critical success since Fargo, the Coen Brothers return to the screwy, yet uneven comedic platform that has become their trademark genre in recent years. In contrast to the parodic take on espionage conventions depicted in spy comedies of the 1960’s such as Val Guest’s pop-art satire Casino Royale (1967) or the Sixties set Austin Powers franchise, Burn After Reading brims with a dark comedic froth and features scenes more akin to No Country For Old Men than the groovy worlds created by either Val Guest or Jay Roach. 

Despite CIA headquarters being its initial starting point , there is scant attention paid toward contemporary issues, spy culture or a chronological timeframe beyond a post-Soviet world. The collapse of the latter is rare example of politics eliciting humour in Burn After Reading: a highly apolitical project that extracts much of its black comedy from the illogical nature of its characters in addition to the filmic genre it intends to satirize. The latter is notably evident in the Coen Brothers’ parodic winks to the spy genre’s staple flourishes such as the deployment of bombastic musical scores, satellite footage and thematic waves of paranoia crashing upon its helpless protagonists. 

Paranoia and idiocy are the film’s two resounding overlapping themes. For political insiders like Harry and Osbourne, their hyperactive suspicions are imbued with a wry sense of realism and particularly in the case of Malkovich’s character an increasing resentment towards his inability to control the situation. The antithesis of this approach is projected by Chad and Linda, whose initial naivety lessens their apprehension toward the situation: enabling them to believe they are in control when they are clearly out of their league. 

However, as with inept couple H.I and Ed in the Coen’s earlier comic masterpiece Raising Arizona, this abruptly changes when their extortionate act of chicanery mixes with a dim sense of reality and its consequences. In Raising Arizona the film ends with a degree of sentimentality; in Burn After Reading the outcome becomes ever more dangerous due to the asinine ideas held by several characters. Unsurprisingly, the most logical character in Burn After Reading remains remarkably unscathed as the film enters its closing moments. 

A twisted and erratic black comedy, Burn After Reading performs at its peak when its criss-crossed stories intertwine into a dark, violent brew allowing for its star-studded cast to interact and piece together the film’s imbalanced loose strands. Lacking in any moral stance or output, the film’s estranged emotionalism is kept in check throughout and is only genuinely espoused by Frances McDormand in her effective portrayal of Linda. Both Clooney and Pitt provide offbeat performances that reside comfortably alongside Tilda Swinton’s cold-hearted, hypocritical nag. Her highly amusing scene with a stubborn young child in her office is truly pitch-perfect for her character. Although his character is the film’s chief focus, John Malkovich’s arrogant and angry alcoholic often appears to lack a multi-faceted element, as does much of the film itself. 

More an exercise in style and aesthetics, Burn After Reading is a ripe pallette of contradictions and misfiring connections. The Coen Brothers fervently lampoon Burn After Reading’s “league of morons,” but forget to acknowledge that although the film’s cartoonish lead characters and its situational devices are blatantly absurd, they continue to exist in a cruel and punishing world. In doing so, the Coen Brothers have created a film that whilst darkly twisted and at times immensely funny, ultimately feels somewhat vapid in its failure to take a stance on anything. Appropriately, the film ends with a shrug that seems to question the point of the entire exercise. 

Neither a complete failure nor a masterpiece, Burn After Reading is a flawed and divisive entry in their canon.