Smile Politely

Burn After Reading is Typical Coens — in a Good Way

Half the suspense of a Coen brothers film comes from the fact that these directors cannot be trusted in keeping their characters safe. Preparing to engage oneself in a romp with the Coens should be likened to heading out on the road with your legally blind 90-year old grandmother at the wheel. Dig your fingers into the nearest hunk of upholstery and expect some wild times ahead. So if you haven’t learned your lesson by now, take warning: these directors could care less if you like their film; they just want to make a good movie.

Burn After Reading boasts a killer cast in John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton. The trailers would have you believe the film is a wild, awkward comedy in the canon of the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? or even the quirky, but less than brilliant Ladykillers. Trailers lie, my friends. Oh, how they love to mislead the wandering movie-goer. Yes, Burn has its moments of scurrilous cacophony, its self-aware anecdotes like knowing a rampaging Malkovich is always cause for both a grin and a cringe. But the film is more akin to their more cultish ventures like The Big Lebowski; remember that film wasn’t all ribbing giggles. Depending on the viewer, this may or may not be a good thing.

Burn weaves a tangled, interconnecting web of unlikely characters, beginning with Oz (Malkovich), a C.I.A. agent who is demoted, and consequently quits his job. Oz apparently “drinks too much,” and has no real ambitions after he leaves the C.I.A., except to write his memoir. His wife is Katie (Swinton), who turns out to be having an affair with Harry (Clooney). Katie is preparing to divorce Oz, and her lawyer urges her to figure her husband’s worth before she lets him in on the news. The twist is that the lawyer’s secretary loses the CD of collected information about Oz at Hardbodies, a local Washington D.C. gym. The CD is found by a janitor, and the contents are examined by simple-minded Chad (Pitt) and the ever-chipper Linda (McDormand). Driven by her obsession to scrape up enough funds for liposuction and a facelift, Linda pairs up with Chad to collect a “reward” for the lost CD. When Chad makes a bumbling call to Oz about the lost CD, the deal comes off as blackmail. Factor in the Russian Embassy, murder, stalking black cars, an online dating service and a literal sex machine — and you’ve got a rough idea on how the film escalates into a cluttered, yet functional, mess. Each character teeters on the brink of his or her own chaos as events spiral out of control.

Now, this may all sound like the wacky romp the trailer would have you believe, but the dark undertone brings a stark sense of urgency to the unfolding events. One source of its comedy comes from the characters’ complete lack of understanding of each other’s motives; on the flip-side, this misunderstanding leads to tragedy.

The Coens balance the film on a thin line of hilarious circumstance and horrific irony. And once the credits begin to roll, one must sit back and either laugh or cry. I admit, the entire thing rolled up and tied in a bow left me in a bit of shock, and I came out of it with a strange, pained grin. The more I think about it, Burn accomplishes so much, pointing out bits of human poignancy through the repetition in someone’s character, and even hammering a bleak opinion about fate into the whole mess. No one can accuse the Coen brothers of being optimists, unless perhaps humming to the tune of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Burn is absolutely worth viewing more than once. If not to re-examine some of the jabbering words that fly out of Clooney’s mouth, than to catch subtle clues of character not previously realized until later in the game. The performances are, no surprise, pitch-perfect. Brad Pitt reminds us how he became such a respected actor, with a personality makeover as chameleon as his role in 12 Monkeys. Clooney’s performance reminds us of a darker version of his role in O Brother, while Malkovich is typical Malkovich having a really, really bad day. Frances McDormand makes us wish she were gracing us with more movies, and Swinton is the perfect ice queen. Even the smaller roles in the film leave an impression, from the manager at the gym, played by (Richard Jenkins), to the C.I.A. agents trying to figure out what the hell is going on with these people. Go to Burn with the same spirit of knowing you’re about to be shot in the arm, and you’ll get a lollipop afterwards. If nothing else, at least you’ll have the ammo for great conversation in the waiting lines at Ebertfest.

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