The Coen brothers reached the pinnacle of success with No Country for Old Men, and it must have scared the crap out of them, because with Burn After Reading they're back to their old tricks again, mixing and matching movie genres with film-school glee. This time, it's spy thrillers and sex farces, which turn out to have more in common than you'd expect. Both rely on subterfuge, if not treachery. And both love a good plot twist or three. Set in the D.C. area, with occasional trips out to Langley, Burn After Reading imagines a world where everybody's being followed by everybody else but nobody knows exactly why. And because it's a sex farce, everybody gets screwed.
We open with John Malkovich's Osborne Cox, a veteran CIA analyst who's just been canned. Perhaps no other actor could rise to such an occasion with Malkovich's mixture of preening self-regard and lion-in-winter rage, and he's acting with his whole body this time, flailing his arms like a puppet on a string. Seeking revenge, Osborne starts typing a memoir that's meant to blow the Agency's cover, but he's barely begun Chapter One before the disk winds up in the hands of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), trainers at a local gym who aren't above a little blackmail if it's for a good cause. And what better cause than plastic surgery?
It's always fun to watch smart actors play dumb, and that Pitt has better luck than McDormand should not be considered an indication of their respective IQs, only their acting abilities. And Pitt is simply more capable of removing the top layers of his cerebrum, sucking on water bottles like they contain baby formula. McDormand never quite gets all the way down there, but she's game enough, evoking Carol Burnett in her prime. George Clooney, also too smart to play too dumb, is on board as Harry Pfarrer, a federal marshal who has affairs the way other men play golf. In fact, he's having one with Osborne's wife, a "cold, stuck-up bitch" played by - who else? - Tilda Swinton. And he's about to start one with Linda.
Complications ensue, to say the least, but it's not like we're ever left out in the cold. On the contrary, we know a lot more about what's going on than any of the characters do, even the pair of CIA desk types (David Rosche and J.K. Simmons) who are monitoring the situation, gathering intelligence. Not that there's a lot of intelligence to be gathered. Everybody's blinded by self-love, looking out for Number One if they can manage to count that far. And that can wear on you after a while. It's like watching a Warner Bros. cartoon that stretches way past the seven-minute mark. But there's a sense of impending doom, the smell of a bloodbath, that keeps you on edge.
Relax, it's only the occasional spurt. And the Coens, those imps of the perverse, cheat us out of a satisfying climax by having the CIA guys explain everything to us afterwards. (Touché, dudes!) They may not be working at the top of their form here; this is no Fargo, no Raising Arizona or even Barton Fink. But it's more than a couple of notches above Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, where the jokes landed like dead fish. There's always this sense that the Coens, Ethan and Joel, are making these things for their own amusement. In fact, they may love the most the ones everybody else loves the least. If so, they're going to be at least mildly disappointed this time.
Burn After Reading
Eastgate, Point, Star, Sundance