The Coen brothers’ latest farce is hit and miss
The new Coen brothers production begins and ends with the CIA, and a key plot point involves the errant memoirs of a wacko ex-spy. But espionage is only a pretext in this exuberantly grotesque comedy-drama, and even the more fully foregrounded storylines—farcical adultery, hopeless dreamers, delusional schemers—are only a means to the ends of the Coens’ now-familiar brand of cynically brash comic entertainment.
There’s a bitterly sardonic comedy of manners rattling around in a lot of this, and there’s at least some potential for scathing social satire as well. But Burn After Reading‘s main suit is a kind of blithely savage comic goofing, the sort of thing that has an unmistakable appeal in the contemporary market for the diversions of supposedly “transgressive” entertainment.
There’s no real reason, of course, to get all serious about the Coens’ latest enterprise in that direction, and I suspect that some segments of the brothers’ fan base—and maybe the Coens themselves—prefer it that way. No Country for Old Men, a masterpiece and not a Coen original, is the exception that proves the rule, and the brothers’ reversion to default mode in their most recent film should come as no surprise, at least in the long view.
That said, the fraternal auteurs’ latest concoction is a hit-and-miss operation, and at a brisk 91 minutes, the unevenness and even the outlandishness of everything—plot, character, humor—remain part of the fun, more or less. It seems no accident that the story comes to an abrupt and flippantly inconclusive halt at just the point where its extravagances of bedroom farce and lethally covert intrigue begin to spin almost entirely out of control for everyone involved—characters, filmmakers, audience.
The disgruntled ex-spy, John Malkovich as the most authoritative and articulate of the film’s paranoid nut jobs, launches a tirade against the “league of morons” he assumes are persecuting him, thus supplying the film with the first and perhaps best of its unofficial mottos and prickly half-truths. But it is left to one of the CIA honchos (J.K. Simmons in the best of the film’s several cameos) to speak the movie’s own scatologically self-referential summation: “Jesus, what a clusterfuck!”
Malkovich’s performance struck me as the best in the film, the one full-bodied combination of the Coens’ comic lunacy with their darker themes. The four other leading players all have their moments, but each gets mired in one way or another in the Coens’ penchant for cartoonish caricature. Brad Pitt shows a certain zany brilliance as the most archly cartoonish of the lot, while Tilda Swinton is limited to a series of costume changes in the course of repeating the single joke of her character’s cold-hearted detachment.
George Clooney’s amiable nitwit of a Don Juan is, like the movie itself, amusing and not very consequential. Frances McDormand gives a droll but uncharacteristically labored account of the most prominent figure in the film’s gallery of clueless narcissists.
Maybe all of that would have worked out a little better in a movie that was less narcissistic itself and not so self-satisfied in its own cluelessness.