Joel and Ethan Coen have never made a bad movie, and “Burn After Reading” certainly is not one. It is, however, a lesser Coen work, a negligible dark comedy that will be remembered alongside, say, “The Ladykillers” rather than with, say, “The Big Lebowski.”
It’s played like a spoof of techno-thrillers (complete with “24”-style musical score and teletype captions telling us the locations), only instead of smart people outfoxing each other, we have a parade of idiotic jerks screwing up their lives through greed and sheer stupidity.
Our first jerk is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a bitter, prissy CIA operative who has just been fired for, among other things, having a drinking problem. (“You’re a Mormon!” he yells at his supervisor. “Next to you we all have a drinking problem!”) Returning to his cold, humorless wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), in Georgetown, he decides to write a memoir (which he pronounces “mem-wuh”) as a means of exorcising his CIA demons and having the last laugh on the Agency.
Meanwhile, at a local gym called Hardbodies, there is a trainer named Linda (Frances McDormand) who wants a tummy tuck, liposuction, and minor plastic surgery to make herself feel younger and more fit. Like all of Frances McDormand’s characters, Linda is immediately likable and sweet. Unlike most of them, Linda soon turns on us: When a CD containing what she believes is top-secret CIA information is found in the gym’s locker room, she is more than happy to blackmail its owner, Osborne Cox, for the money she needs for the operations.
Her partner in this is Chad (Brad Pitt), a dippy, peppy fellow trainer whose hairstyle and I.Q. are stuck in the eighties. Chad has no malice in him; what he has is childlike excitement at getting involved in a caper, and his enthusiasm for the game of blackmail far exceeds his ability to pull it off. Osborne Cox, for his part, cannot believe how dumb his extortionists are, and he’s not afraid to tell them, in loud, profane terms — Osborne swears at a highly advanced level — just how much they will regret this.
Meanwhile, Osborne’s wife has been sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a mid-level government agent with several personality quirks (a number of food allergies, an interest in hardwood flooring, etc.) and a wife of his own. Harry likes to meet women over the Internet and have sex with them. The mousy, self-conscious Linda, placing an ad on the very site favored by Harry, soon becomes one of his paramours. Back at Hardbodies, her boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins), pines quietly for her.
As in most Coen comedies (and even some of the dramas), the plot grows more convoluted and absurd while still staying generally within the bounds of reality — i.e., the effects of the characters’ actions are what you would reasonable expect them to be in these circumstances. J.K. Simmons, in a brief role as a CIA higher-up, summarizes the goofiness of the situation to an underling: “Get back to me when it makes sense.” It never does — or, rather, even when it does make sense, it’s still ridiculous.
Detractors have complained that the Coens rarely show any sympathy for their characters. Here, for the first time, I tend to agree. The only characters who get killed onscreen are the nice ones, and while I understand that Linda desperately wants her surgeries, I just don’t buy her being so immediately willing to sell state secrets to the Russians. There is also the matter of Brad Pitt’s performance, which is funny but shallow, like a caricature, while Clooney, McDormand and (especially) Malkovich are funny but grounded.
Quibbles aside, a “lesser” Coen movie is like a “lesser” Pixar movie: still better than most of its competition. “Burn After Reading” is gleefully dark and frequently hilarious. The Coens obviously just wanted to make a silly movie with some of their friends, and the zeal that comes from such an undertaking is all on the screen. If Joel and Ethan want to toss off a frivolous lark every now and then between their major works, that’s fine with me.
B- (1 hr., 34 min.; )