Who didn’t see this one coming? In their twenty-four years of screenwriting and directing, Joel and Ethan Coen have bounced between dark plunges into a killer’s abysmal psyche and zany tales of boneheaded crime schemes gone awry. After last year’s bloodthirsty adaptation, No Country for Old Men, the brothers’ oeuvre seemed ripe for a few giggles, and Burn After Reading presumes to deliver the goods.
In typical Coen style, those giggles are elicited by a motley crew of dimwits and peppered over a sinuous and often ludicrous plot. After getting the boot at his Level 3 clearance intelligence job, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) decides to lash back at his CIA ex-brethren with a tattle-telling memoir, which he saves on the most secure storage device known to the intelligence community: a compact disc.
So far so good, until Cox’s little disc falls out of his gym shorts and into the hands of Hard Bodies gymnasium employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who attempt to blackmail Cox with peanut brittle-smooth talking and belabored mean faces (winced brilliantly by Pitt). Hyper-paranoid ex-Secret Serviceman Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) soon finds himself entangled in the web of deceit when his pheromone-crazed exploits score him dinner with Ms. Litzke via an internet dating service and, as they say, it all goes to pot.
As farces go, Burn After Reading is never short on levity. Particularly uproarious is the gum-chewing health nut Chad Feldheimer, the perfect foil to some of Pitt’s past roles as the sharp-witted criminal mastermind. Feldheimer never manages to keep up the bad-guy persona, from his introductory phone call to Mr. Cox (“I thought you might be wooorrried…about the secuuurrrity…of your shit”) to their brief physical encounter, which leaves the svelte jock with a bloody nose and hurt feelings.
This type of humor can overstep its bounds, though, and most of the film’s characters are overdrawn to cartoonish lengths. Clooney’s role as a paranoid ex-CIA man has long been cliché in the film industry, and his twitching performance obscures some truly hilarious exchanges. (An episode in which his wife confuses Clooney’s attempt to lure her into having sex in the back seat of their car with a solicitation for the “rear entry situation” springs to mind.)
Conversely, Osborne’s better half, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), is almost inconceivably cold and calculating as a pediatrician, at one point commanding a child to open his mouth with Churchill-esque ferocity. To top it off, the casting of Frances McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife) as yet another sad sack of wanting femininity—this time as a homely gym employee driven to crime to pay for plastic surgery—by now seems cruel. (One wonders if the two need marriage counseling.)
To be fair, the actors do well with the cards they are dealt, and the film is never wanting for gut-splitting displays of absurdity. But the Coens should know by now that a cynical comedy such as this needs a lovable, thoroughly human character to soften its coarser spots. Whereas The Big Lebowski hinged on the personality of the bumbling but endearing “dude” and Fargo centered on a genuine do-gooder of a cop, Burn After Reading is a morally vacuous affair: a Palin-like string of corrupt dealings leading up a bridge to nowhere.
In fact, the only remotely likeable character in the film is the lovesick gym manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), though he plays too peripheral a role to make a dent in the otherwise faceless comedy. Tellingly, Ted meets his end when Cox mistakes him for a spy and axes him to death, perfectly encapsulating Burn After Reading’s buffoonish disregard for sincerity—and the audience’s needs.