It’s the Cold War all over again in the Coen brothers’ newest film, Burn After Reading – there are even Russians to prove it. No one is honest, everyone is an idiot and no one is aware of either fact. It’s a world of cheating spouses and “deceptive” politics in the Coens’ faux reality and there is no sign that “change” is anywhere in the near future.
The film is, at once, a comedic portrayal of mundane idiocy but also an ironically honest tale of the “deceptive” nature of American bureaucracy. To call it a comedy would be doing it a disservice, but it is funny; to call it noir would be wrong, but one does get the feeling (perhaps because of the Saul Bass style movie poster) that one is treading in morally ambiguous territory, with someone watching your every movement from the back of theater. After all, as we exit the movie it is almost as though we’re led to believe that not only is our significant other watching us, but the government is too.
The film begins with the firing of Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), for abundantly unclear reasons, from his job at the CIA. To his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), Osborne reports that he has quit his job to write his long-awaited memoir. The loss of her husband’s job (among other things) prompts Katie to see a divorce lawyer, whose only advice is to get all of her husband’s finances together before making a move. Katie is cheating on Osborne with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and intends to leave her husband for Harry.
Harry has other ideas. Harry is married and seemingly committed to his wife, but not committed enough to avoid sleeping with as many women as possible. For Harry is not only cheating on his wife, but also on Katie; he eventually begins sleeping with Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) an employee at Hardbodies Gym where she works alongside her superior Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) and everyone’s inferior Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). One morning, a CD filled with sensitive CIA information turns up in the ladies’ locker room at Hardbodies and before long the story really begins to get moving. It’s a story of blackmail, murder and subpoenas, and it will take a trip to Images to really get a handle on it.
The movie is a screwball comedy straight out of the thirties mixed with a film noir right out of the fifties. It’s a kind of film not unfamiliar to the Coens as it shares many of the same themes and motifs as some of their earlier work like The Big Lebowski, and Fargo. At one point in the film, there is a line so reminiscent of The Big Lebowski one begins to expect that “The Dude” will walk across the screen at any minute. It is a movie filled with dark humor that is biting and dry; it’s the kind you either love or hate.
Pitt is particularly effective as a moronic gym trainer whose scenes are some of the best in the film; his almost amiable idiocy will have you wondering whether he is the most genuine character in the film. Clooney manages to be funny without trying too hard and his scenes with Swinton (a pitch perfect cold-hearted woman) are well done if not a little odd, as their previous on screen work together (Michael Clayton) had them at each other’s throats.
Burn After Reading is at its best when it’s being funny. It totters delicately between morbid and outright humor, but as one should expect with any Coen brothers’ movie, stark violence is always right around the corner, as startling as it may be to some. At its core, Burn After Reading is a comedy and should be appreciated as such. Sure, one could describe it as a political thriller that illustrates perfectly the increasing deceptiveness and stupidity of American intelligence agencies as well as the government’s continued infringement upon people’s personal privacy, but wouldn’t you just rather think of it as a comedy?