The Coen Brothers' latest Burn After Reading is a movie I've been meaning to get around to reviewing. I saw it on opening weekend, and my knee-jerk reaction was a less than enthusiastic response to the film. But I couldn't blame the film or the directors for failing to meet expectations set by its marketing people. I decided to wait a week, to allow the film to reveal itself to me. And if you've seen the film, you might be surprised at what my thoughts are.
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a low-level CIA analyst who resigns after being demoted for an alleged drinking problem he denies. Turns out he's pretty much a lush. And why shouldn't he be. He has trouble adapting to the monotony of daytime TV. He has little to fill his tape recorder with as he dictates his memoirs (or as he calls them, "mem-was"), and his marriage to the ice-cold Katie (Tilda Swinton) is slowly disintegrating.
Katie is demanding even of Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married federal marshal who has a peculiar side project he's working on in his basement. See, Katie is on her way to ending her relationship with Osborne, a move Harry's been pushing for until it becomes reality. A paranoid serial philanderer, Harry usually goes for unavailable women, to keep it simple. But his m.o. has backfired this time. And when he goes on his 5 mile runs, he senses someone following him. Could it be Linda and Chad?
Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) are two gym instructors who have found a misplaced disc with Osborne's private information. They decide this is their ticket to fortune, and try blackmailing Cox. But Cox refuses to play their game. The two amateur spies are not holding anything of value to anyone but Cox, as they soon discover when they try selling the info to the Russians. But Linda, who is banking on extensive cosmetic surgery to lift her spirits, is determined to see her plan through. And Chad, a Type-A thrill junkie, is definitely along for the ride.
My immediate reaction was that this was no Raising Arizona, to be sure. The movie trailers promised a madcap comedy in the vein of that movie or The Big Lebowski. This was anything but. First of all, the film is more of an ensemble piece than the ads indicate (Pitt and McDormand are definitely not the protagonists). Carter Burwell's score is an exceedingly melodramatic one, a sort of espionage-tinged counterpoint to the inanity of the goings-on. It sets the mood for a kind of shell game where the Coens put one in the uncomfortable position of trying to figure out if we're watching a comedy, who the hero is (there isn't one), and what is so important about the disc in question that leads to all this mayhem.
Credit the Coens for their deceptive use of the disc as the ultimate MacGuffin. The directors use the mayhem incited by Cox's disc to explore the current sad state of the human condition. The Coens have reached a nadir in their estimation of humanity. Not one person in this movie is exempt from being self-absorbed, ridiculously unintelligent, or exceedingly greedy. Fargo, at least, had the surprisingly crafty Chief Marge Gunderson (also McDormand) one could root for. Even the darker No Country For Old Men, had Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a decent man one could relate to. But the only characters that one may be able to sympathize with in Burn are the CIA Greek chorus played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, and even they show signs of limited intellect.
Don't take this the wrong way. I'm now convinced this may be one of the Coens' most successful and subversive movies. It is the absolute perfect way to explore themes that reside in our current collective consciousness. In a world where the righteousness of our wars are questionable, our constitutionally protected right to privacy has been squashed, and our financial markets are on the verge of collapse, what is a more apt allegory than this laughable story. Just like all the characters in this film, our political leaders are pointing fingers, watching their backs, and attempting to cover their asses from culpability. Pitt's performance may seem like it belongs in another movie's. But doesn't our president's conduct also seem that way, too?
Years from now, when we get to the end of our current state of affairs, and take a look back to sort it all out, we'll be the Greek chorus wondering how it happened, and what it all ultimately meant in the greater picture. And just like the two CIA officers, we'll probably share the same exchange:
CIA Superior: What did we learn?
CIA Officer: Uh...
CIA Superior: Not to do it again.
CIA Superior: I don't know what the fuck it is we DID, but...