Joel and Ethan Coen’s follow-up to last year’s grimly majestic No Country For Old Men seems like a lark – an excuse for the film-makers to pal around with their favorite actors and let off steam. But funny as Burn After Reading is, in a way it’s the flip side of No Country. In both movies, boneheaded decisions send everyday situations out of control and leave violence and bafflement in their wake.
Burn After Reading opens as a nifty parody of government thrillers, as a planet’s eye view descends to CIA headquarters. Longtime agent Oswald Cox (John Malkovich, delightfully profane) is being demoted; enraged, Cox quits and begins writing a tell-all memoir about his agency days. Cox’s coldhearted wife Katie (icy Tilda Swinton), however, is highly displeased and begins making plans to divorce Cox and take up with her longtime lover, former U. S. Marshal and current exercise-and-sex addict Harry Pfarrar (adorable George Clooney).
Unfortunately, Cox’s memoirs are found by gym employees Linda (Frances McDormand) and dumber-than-he-looks Chad (scene-stealing Brad Pitt). Linda wants money for extensive cosmetic surgery and Chad is just, well, Chad – they decide to extort money from Cox in exchange for the memoir. Hijinks ensue.
Burn After Reading is more grounded in reality than some of the other Coen comedies such as The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona. Its laughs aren’t as broad or obvious – more often they’re in the subtleties of the situation or of the performances. For example, one of the funniest scenes is when Chad confronts Cox with the blackmail scheme – the laughs come from recognizing that Chad is emulating not how a CIA spook would act, but how he believes (in his dim-bulb way) a spook would act. If it sounds a bit esoteric, it is. But the best laughs in the movie are its least blatant ones.
The performances are all top-notch, as the actors disappear into their characters. Though some of them might be caricatures, they are nonetheless real people, from Malkovich’s old-school spook to Clooney’s increasingly paranoid good-time guy to McDormand’s average woman trying to stave off middle age. The direction is likewise excellent, with the Coens taking their time to set up the situation and almost make the audience believe it’s watching a straight thriller until the absurdity begins.
It’s definitely not to all tastes and probably won’t please the crowds with its tightrope balancing between seriousness and satire. But if you want a comedy that won’t insult your intelligence, you won’t find much better.