The Coen brothers have never been ones to take themselves seriously. The best part of the Oscars last year was seeing the uncomfortable looks on their faces as they had to collect award after award from their peers, like the kid who hides in the back of the class suddenly being asked to come to the board and do a problem. Whenever critics start to love them too much, they take a razor to the wrists of their careers, bleeding out any pretentiousness before it builds up and makes them cocky. Such is the case with “Burn After Reading,” the follow-up to possibly the best movie of the decade thus far, “No Country For Old Men.”
A subtle send-up of the spy thrillers by John le Carré, the film centers on four main characters: Linda (Frances McDormand), who wants plastic surgery so she can finally find the perfect man; her airheaded best friend Chad (Brad Pitt); Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an alcoholic CIA agent who plans to write a scathing memoir after being forced to resign; and ex-Secret Service agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who’s having an affair with Osborne’s wife (Tilda Swinton). While Cox’s wife files for divorce, Chad finds a CD full of CIA secrets at the gym in which he and Linda work. Seeing a way to pay for her elective surgeries, Linda (with Chad’s help) conspires to blackmail Cox in exchange for the disc.
From here on out it’s standard Coens’ fare: dumb people try to pull off something far beyond their limited grasp and understanding, and a lot of people die painful deaths. The brothers are clearly influenced by the work of Flannery O’Connor; “Fargo” or “Barton Fink” are grotesque morality plays just as complex, esoteric, horrifying and (often) darkly funny as O’Connor’s short stories. We don’t really get anyone to root for, save perhaps gym boss Ted (Richard Jenkins), who longs for Linda just the way she is. Everyone else is a self-absorbed monster.
What really sets this apart from their previous screwball efforts is the acting. Swinton has a look of perennial exasperation, as if the totality of everyone’s idiocy is too much to bear. Malkovich brings all his snarling venom to the forefront as the misanthropic Cox; when he spits out to one character, “You’re in league with morons,” his words are so acidic they could burn through steel.
In the latest collaboration with the brothers, Clooney does a fine job of tearing down his leading-man persona for more character-driven work. A sex-obsessed, paranoid man, Harry generally stops panicking only long enough to run a few miles and bed yet another woman. Clooney has proven several times over his ability to carry a film, but it is when he takes a back seat that he really shines.
But the real stars are McDormand and Pitt. McDormand, in her best performance since 2005’s “North Country,” is the kind of person who thinks she’s humble and down to earth but is really elitist. She acknowledges (and greatly exaggerates) her own physical flaws but expects her soulmate to be perfect. Linda’s disposition is that of McDormand’s own Marge Gunderson (“Fargo”) mixed with a bitter edge brought on by age and loneliness.
Despite a host of great performances, Brad Pitt steals the show. He hops through the film with earbuds on, raucously dancing to music only he can hear, with facial expressions that look almost childish. His role is the smallest of the principal cast, but I can guarantee it’s the one you’ll be talking about the most.
“Burn After Reading” certainly won’t keep the attention of all the converts “No Country For Old Men” brought to these stylish cult directors, but people looking for another surreal, non-linear, brilliant mess in the style of “The Big Lebowski” should be quite pleased. At one point, a CIA superior (played by J.K. Simmons, who can always turn every piece of his dialogue into a one-liner) tells his subordinate to come back to him “when it all makes sense.” He’s in the wrong movie. A friend I saw it with said it dragged. I disagree; like all of the brothers’ films, it simply takes its time. Aided by director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (filling in for a busy Roger Deakins), the Coen brothers have offered up 2008's best-looking comedy, and one of its funniest.