Burn After Reading

Public Service Announcement:
Don’t bring highly classified data to the gym.


Last year in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Oscar nominee Casey Affleck stole the entire film away from his leading man, Brad Pitt. One year later, it’s Brad Pitt’s turn to steal some thunder of his own in Burn After Reading from Focus Features (quickly turning into the new Miramax).

And that he does and more in the newest film from the Coen Brothers — managing to nail every scene he’s in, get the most laughs and keep us wanting more of his character as opposed to the assorted band of oddballs and amoral madmen assembled in the filmmakers’ nihilistically absurdist take on espionage comedy.

Coming off the heels of last year’s brilliant but bleak Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men, which David Edelstein noted Joel and Ethan Coen wrote at the same time as Burn, I wish I could say it was the antidote to the inevitable and pessimistic gloom that pervaded in their film about a country that’s hard on people. However, instead of the bright, cheery comedy advertised in one of the year’s best cut trailers (both red and green band), we get a comedy that’s more unsettling than laugh-out-loud funny despite some truly inventive work by Pitt and Frances McDormand as two ambitious gym employees who try to sell top secret CIA data from a dropped computer disc.

Anxious first to try and get a “Good Samaritan” type of reward for ensuring the security of the “highly classified shit” they’ve discovered, soon their phone call to former CIA employee Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) turns into blackmail. Although it’s McDormand who makes the threat, no doubt their case wasn’t helped by Pitt’s incessant explanation about the “security of your shit” which understandably frustrates Cox, whom — awakened in the middle of the night — has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

And why should he? Although he’s been working on his memoirs after impulsively quitting the agency in a hilarious confrontational beginning as he’s officially downgraded for a drinking problem, it’s his unfaithful wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) who compiled the data on the disc as a preemptive strike before serving him with divorce papers. Unbeknownst to either of them, their moves are all being watched as the plot grows increasingly complex and chaotic when the link between the two stories — the kinky governmental employee Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) becomes involved — begins sleeping alternately with Swinton’s Katie and McDormand’s Linda Litzke. And when Osborne proves to be less than cooperative, Linda, desperate to have plastic surgery and oblivious to the earnest affection of her good-natured boss Ted (Richard Jenkins), leads Pitt’s Chad further into an international debacle as they try to sell the “secret shit” to the Russians.

You’ll notice I’m including Pitt’s phrase of choice throughout as indeed, his character is quintessentially Coen; more specifically, he’s funny as hell, fond of vague repetition of words and phrases like “oh my God” as he runs down a hallway or “shit” which he uses as a noun, adjective, and verb. And while he no doubt engages in unscrupulous behavior and is the instigator of the inevitable bloody violence that follows (it’s a Coen Brothers film after all), aside from Ted the human puppy dog, Chad is the most likable one of the bunch. Thus, much like Shakespeare’s Mercutio, he gets all the best lines, detracts from the film’s artistry, and one-ups Clooney (although they only share one fateful scene) at every turn, and unfortunately he’s the one who is used far too little throughout.

Meet Chad:

With an advertising campaign comprised of cool Saul Bass-styled posters echoing the classy spy films and Hollywood blockbusters of the late '50s and '60s (the lettering alone looks like Bass’s work on Vertigo), it’s evident that like No Country was sort of the Coen version of a western, this is their version of a spy comedy, yet it’s surprisingly devoid of humor. And that’s quite a shame as again, it had one of the best ad campaigns of 2008.

View the Trailer:

Even though initially one doesn’t think “funny” and the Coen Brothers, especially given their last film, they’ve definitely aced the genre before with not just their most-referenced cult hit The Big Lebowski but also in one of the most ridiculously hysterical chase scenes of the 1980s as Nicolas Cage tries to outrun authorities like a live action cartoon in Raising Arizona. Moreover, they’ve even inserted humor in the unlikeliest of situations from Fargo to No Country, yet when they attempt a pure comedy but don’t go all out in the execution by muddling it with nihilistic and brutal bursts of action, the results have been mixed.

Like The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers, the timing of this one is just plain off and it took a good twenty minutes to garner one genuine laugh, after Malkovich’s grand confrontation which opens the film. Although some audience members did chuckle, even at the oddest of moments as one character slices another in the head with an axe, it all seemed to be as half-hearted as the direction, more in appreciation of the directors themselves than what was actually served up to audiences. This being said, I wasn’t unprepared, knowing fully how “out there” they can go-- having seen, analyzed, and appreciated even some of their strangest works such as Barton Fink and the wood-chipper finale of Fargo. As a film host and critic I have probably explained, championed, and defended their work to friends, audiences, and strangers more than most.

And while granted that Clooney is no doubt familiar with their brand of humor — having done so phenomenally well with it in O Brother, Where Art Thou -- it’s ultimately his extremely unpleasant and repugnant character along with an under-written and icy Tilda Swinton (Clooney’s Oscar winning costar who, along with Tom Wilkinson stole his own film last year, Michael Clayton, away from him again) that bogs down the plot of Burn as a whole.

It takes far too long to introduce us to not only Pitt’s Chad but McDormand’s middle-aged Linda. Tired of half-heartedly sleeping with married losers she meets online after a dull day at work, she has made the foolish and entirely Hollywood-like decision that she’s gone as far as she can with her current body and has decided she wants to improve her looks with four drastic plastic surgeries. Obviously a commentary of McDormand’s profession no doubt cooked up by McDormand and her husband Joel Coen, this plot alone would’ve helped add to the humor and we feel shortchanged once again when, just like a final description of events featuring Clooney’s character, McDormand’s character finally finds a solution to her problems but it’s all discussed by a CIA operative played by Juno’s dad (J.K. Simmons).

If they truly wanted to make us laugh, we would’ve seen these events with our own eyes, rather than be “told” what happened and it’s not like they were overstaying their welcome with a roughly ninety-five minute running time. Ultimately, the Coens end Burn with the same type of similar dissatisfying aftertaste that became one of the biggest criticisms of last year’s abrupt end to No Country. And possibly to fix this, they could’ve found a way to delete the Clooney and Swinton plot altogether and just give us more of “The Chad” (to quote Charlie’s Angels) so we could relish in his childlike awe upon trying to discover all the “highly classified shit” he can get his hands on.