Burn After Reading
You can take that title in a number of ways. As spy jargon, of course—an order to protect top-secret information by ensuring that no eyes other than your own ever will see it. Or as a spectacular critical rebuke, to a document so aggressively disposable that the disposal itself should be aggressive, punitive, scorching. Or maybe just as a warning, that reading the thing will give you some kind of terrible rash.
In any case, Burn After Reading, the new comedy from writer-producer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, is well-titled. It’s fair to call it a grim farce about vanity in an age of constant surveillance, but that might imply more ambition than does the movie itself.
Reportedly it was conceived at the same time as the Coens’ fine, award-laden adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, next to which Burn After Reading seems, probably on purpose, like a trifle. But at least it’s a comedic trifle, as the Coens’ fans have come to expect from them; that last one, with the joyless, remorseless violence, was a bit heavy, after all.
A bow-tied, apparently complacent CIA analyst, played by John Malkovich, gets pushed out of his job—ostensibly for drinking, although that seems like a bogus pretext for putting the old guy out to pasture; as he reasonably protests to one of his accusers, “Fuck you, Peck! You’re a Mormon. Next to you we all have a drinking problem!”
Then he gets pushed out of his marriage to an icy pediatrician, played by Tilda Swinton, who answers his plan to pen a tell-all memoir (or “mem-wah” in his affected and telling pronunciation) with a curt little expelled-gas laugh. Turns out she’s been conducting an affair anyway, albeit a rather glumly procedural one, with George Clooney, as a fidgety federal marshal who can’t quite manage his appetite for women but can at least boast (in just such a way as to telegraph future plot turns) that he’s never discharged his weapon in 20 years of service.
Then Malkovich gets pushed out of his stately Georgetown home. And all the while he gets pushed around—or nudged, at least—by a pair of would-be blackmailers, played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who find a disk of inchoate notes toward the mem-wah on a locker-room floor at the gym where they work.
These two seem about as suited to extortion as their victim seems suited to a second career as a man of letters: namely, not at all. She’s only in it to raise money for the cosmetic-surgery overhaul she hopes will improve her prospects for online dating; he’s in it presumably because he’s a shallow dummy who needs a hobby.
And off they all go. It’s no No Country, all right, but rather a safely standard-issue Coen comedy, full of the resigned nihilism, violence and profanity the filmmakers enjoy, and the usual myopically self-interested cartoon characters to whom they mostly condescend. For one thing, the movie rudely aborts every one of its main characters’ arcs—some, like Richard Jenkins’ thankless part as McDormand’s boss and secret admirer, before they’ve even really begun.
With so many clever comedic moments handled as throwaways, Burn After Reading seems so proud of its restraint that it gets distracted from the business of actually building up to something—then just makes a joke of its own distraction. Thankfully, at least, this last duty falls to a perfectly cast J.K. Simmons as a perplexed CIA chief, who gamely delivers a short shot of deadpan brilliance.
Otherwise, it’s about the cast giving their star personas the shabby-chic treatment—be it Clooney and Pitt sending up the chummy suavity of their Ocean’s movies (Pitt working a little too hard to indicate that he gets the joke), or Clooney and Swinton glibly goofing off after seriously facing off in Michael Clayton; or Malkovich, last seen in Washington as a similarly affronted and volcanically angry assassin blowing back on the government that trained him in In the Line of Fire, and here turning paranoid inside-the-power-broker-potboiler thriller tropes inside out.
His is by far the most delectable performance on offer here; too bad the movie lets him down. Burn After Reading is no The Big Lebowski, either. Like the meaning of its title, its stature within the Coen continuum is for you to decide.