Burn After Reading
Running time 96 minutes
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, from their own screenplay, strikes me as one of the most willfully awful movies I’ve ever seen. What makes it even worse is that every one of the “name” performances—George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton—seem determined to best each other in projecting the idiocy of their caricatured middle-aged losers. Yet the early scenes are not intended for middle-aged audiences, but, rather, for teenage viewers and listeners who can be expected to howl with laughter at every gratuitous use of the F and S four-letter words. Don’t get me wrong. I have lobbied as a libertarian in the cause of anti-censorship and anti-ratings. Still, I reserve the right as a critic to question the excessive use of expletives at the expense of sociological and conversational probability. And here the Coen brothers have repeatedly crossed the line to get some easy laughs out of otherwise witlessly malignant dialogue.
Their particularly nasty litany of losers begins right off the bat at a C.I.A. meeting at which analyst Osbourne Cox (Mr. Malkovich) is about to be kicked downstairs to another branch of the government, with lower security clearance, because of his untreated problems with alcoholism. Osbourne decides to quit the government altogether and write a tell-all memoir about his years with the C.I.A.
Osbourne tells his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), about the radical change in his life’s work, but she is too preoccupied with her clandestine affair with a federal marshal, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), to pay much attention to her husband’s problems. Mr. Clooney has never played goofier than he does here as Harry, who has been virtually infantilized by his successful career woman wife (Elizabeth Marvel), who is always traveling overseas to promote her children’s books. Still, the bumbling Harry is not all that comfortable with Katie, who is as demanding with him as she is with her own husband.
Despite the frequent references to the C.I.A., Burn After Reading is not at all a political movie in this politically contentious year, though it is true that the Washington, D.C., suburbs seem to constitute the homeland of imbecility at every level. Indeed, when the focus shifts from C.I.A. headquarters in Virginia to another suburb housing a Hardbodies Fitness Center, the film seems to become apolitical to a fault. The fitness center happens to be the workplace of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), her dim-witted buddy, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), and the gym’s manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins). By the way, you may have noticed the invariably peculiar names given to the main characters, as if the names themselves are designed to elicit guffaws.
Linda is shown as having a fixation on expensive cosmetic surgery to make her into a new woman. When Chad accidentally discovers a misplaced disc containing C.I.A. analyst Osbourne’s memoirist musings about C.I.A. secrets, Linda and Chad decide to approach Osbourne and sell the disc back at a hefty price to pay for Linda’s surgery. Instead, Osbourne gets violent with Chad, and gives him a bloody nose. Outraged by Osbourne’s rejection, Linda leads Chad to the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., where they hope to sell the disc for a heap of rubles or dollars. This I found a little hard to believe even in these mercenary times. Meanwhile, Linda’s manager, Ted, has been nursing a crush on Linda, despite her dalliance with the endlessly fickle Harry. Soon the conflicting aspirations of these clownish figures lead to violence-filled misunderstandings and even a few killings.
In the final cop-out of the script, the last stages of the bloodbath are reported verbally by a C.I.A. officer (David Rasche) to his C.I.A. supervisor (J. K. Simmons) who puts a lid on the whole mess, after even the Russians have dismissed Osbourne’s C.I.A. disc as “drivel.”
Except for Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996), the Coen brothers have generally left me with the impression of mean-spirited academic film nuts with little feeling for their hapless victims of terminal clumsiness and ineptitude. No Country for Old Men (2007) was at least ultra-competent in its villainous nihilism, but I did not share in the general enthusiasm for the film, except for its cast of virtuosos. But Burn After Reading has hit rock bottom for me. See it at your own peril.