A Look Back: “Burn After Reading”.
The lead character of a Coen brothers film is usually greedy, stupid or some unholy combination of the two. Whether it’s the brainless stooges of “Raising Arizona,” the scheming jailbirds of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or the oblivious Midwestern do-gooders of their bloody masterpiece “Fargo,” the heroes of a Coen brothers film are rarely playing with a full deck. Oh, sure, occasionally a rational, decent human being will be thrown into the brother’s strange mix, usually for the purposes of amusement — I think, of course, of saintly cop Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” or the put-upon Larry Gopnik of “A Serious Man” — but even these comparatively sane individuals are usually just puppets in the brother’s increasingly sadistic burlesque. A pair of born pranksters, the writing-directing-producing duo seems to have taken H.L. Mencken’s old maxim about how no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public and built an entire career off of it.
The brother’s thirteenth film, “Burn After Reading,” is populated almost exclusively by creeps, losers, jackasses and borderline psychos. It features not a single good-hearted or redeeming character. No lessons have been learned by the film’s end, by which point pretty much everyone is dead — or just kind of fucked in a more generally cosmic sort of way — as a result of their own idiocy and short-sightedness. As a follow-up to the grave and austere “No Country for Old Men,” which practically swept the Oscars and went on to become perhaps the brother’s most commercially popular film since “Fargo,” “Burn After Reading” is about as perverse and perplexing as you could get. Even from modern cinema’s reigning court jesters, this seemed like even more of a pie-in-the-face moment then usual. Just what, exactly, were the brothers Coen trying to say with “Burn After Reading” — if, in fact, they were trying to say anything at all?
The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot. “Burn After Reading” is a scathing assault on the human capacity for failure, bureaucratic incompetence, the modern dating ritual and the dangers of the emerging surveillance culture. It’s a little like Thomas Pynchon’s great ode to 9/11-era paranoia “Bleeding Edge,” but without the author’s preference for labyrinth narratives and the whole bit about the guy who calls himself a “Professional Nose” (the Coens do share the reclusive author’s penchant for goofy-sounding names, substituting Tyrone Slothrop for Harry Pfarrer). Like “The Big Lebowski,” another seemingly silly lark made in the wake of a universally adored commercial drama, “Burn After Reading” is a slippery, initially deceptive film (made all the more adroit because, this time, the movie is explicitly about deception) that belies its frenzied slapstick exterior with a cutting intelligence. There may be no characters to root for in this sour, violent farce, but lucky for us, there’s plenty to dissect in the Coen’s icky human ant farm.
The principal players of “Burn After Reading” are a hateful, alcoholic and recently fired CIA operative, his bitter and frigid wife, a scummy womanizer and a pair of shallow, overeager fitness trainers who, between them, still only possess a double-digit IQ. The plot is classic screwball, tinged with the brother’s moribund penchant for abrupt, senseless acts of brutality. Basically, the perpetually sozzled spook, Osborne Cox, leaves his boozy memoirs (on a floppy disk) at a local gym, where it is intercepted by our chowderheaded gym rats, Chad and Linda. Chad and Linda, like a pair of clueless junior detectives, believe that the man’s memoirs actually contain some valuable government, um, shit (the character’s words, not mine). It’s hard exactly to find sound reasoning behind the decisions these characters make — or any characters in this movie, really — and the warped sense of fun at the heart of “Burn After Reading” comes from the character’s stubborn refusal to act on any impulse not limited to venal self-regard. By casting a pair of the world’s most handsome and famous actors (Brad Pitt and George Clooney) as goons and gargoyles, the brothers are practically flipping the bird at the reductivist critics who’ve been wagging their well-manicured fingers at them for years, begging the brothers to finally play nice.
Take John Malkovich’s Osborne Cox, for example. Even in a film packed to the gills with some of the most cretinous specimens humanity has to offer, Osborne still stands out as perhaps the movie’s most loathsome character. Why? Well, for starters, he’s a joyless, arrogant contemptuous wreck of a man: a Yale prick whose inflated ego and naked insecurity are as plain as the WASP-y bowtie that hangs around his neck like a noose. Linda, the brainier half of the gym-rat duo, is played by Joel Coen’s wife and Marge Gunderson herself, Frances McDormand, who possesses perhaps the most warm and inviting screen presence of any actress working in movies today. Mrs. McDormand’s basic decency goes a long way towards selling us on the almost breathtakingly shallow Linda, while her co-star Brad Pitt — who plays Chad in form-fitting gymwear and a ridiculous blonde coiff — seems to have taken his actorly cues from a perpetually awed five-year old. Only Linda’s lonely, lovesick boss (played by the marvelous character actor Richard Jenkins, who enlivens everything he’s in) comes out looking like a normal human being, and the way the Coens eventually dispose of his character is so remarkably twisted that soon, the message becomes clear enough: no one who is essentially good can survive. Not in this world.
From its gods-eye opening shot to its apocalyptic finish, “Burn After Reading” often seems intended specifically as a rebuke to the Coen’s critics who claim that they put their characters through the wringer for their own petty amusement. And yet, there’s undeniably more than just comic nihilism on this movie’s mind. With “Burn After Reading,” the Coens take aim not just at a handful of bumbling morons, but at an entire nation — one founded on greed and blissful ignorance. Its characters are all tangled in a vast technological web that may be more or vastly less complicated than it initially appears. They cheat on each other compulsively, guffaw through brain-dead romantic comedies and shovel bad food down their gullets like they are waiting to die. “You’re part of a league of morons,” Osborne says to an important character near the film’s end, and it’s tempting to read his words as a sort of meta-thesis from the filmmakers, directed squarely at us. “Burn After Reading” is a damning, prickly, angry film but that doesn’t mean it’s not also screamingly funny, as in a scene where a clueless Pitt attempts to strongarm an unamused Malkovich. The Coens have always worked wonders with actors, and though “Burn After Reading” might appear slight on first viewing, the film is no exception.
With their last outing, 2014’s haunting elegy “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The Coens have threatened to branch out into a more soulful, decidedly less snarky direction. That film certainly wasn’t humanism, but it also wasn’t “The Hudsucker Proxy”. A perceived minor blip in an already staggering filmography, “Burn After Reading” is actually a brilliant and lasting ode to… well, whatever the opposite of humanism is. It’s both bilious and curiously poignant, acidic as a pickle and yet also broadly funny in a way that sometimes recalls the Three Stooges. It’s no wonder most people couldn’t get on the movie’s insular, rib-digging wavelength. For it is, in the words of its dumbest character, some super-secret intelligent shit.