Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Full credits from IMDb
Whereas the Coen brothers’ last film, No Country for Old Men, opened with low-to-the-ground camera angles, Burn After Reading opens with a theological shot—a Google-Earth’s-eye view of North America that quickly zeroes in on Langley. The Coens stress that, here, we are to be detached observers—that this is not a tense cat-and-mouse chase through the desert but a comedy. A return to form. So sit back and relax. But just because Burn After Reading has Brad Pitt reviving his Cool World coif doesn’t mean that the film has nothing to say. If No Country looked at the decline of the American culture, Burn After Reading examines what determined that fall—the culture of Washington.
The Coens spend the bulk of the film putting the players into place; it’s a complex, multi-character set-up kept going by a martial tick-tock score, which instills Burn After Reading with a gravitas to which it never quite lives up. Set in and around the corridors of power, Burn is a comedy of errors, full of sex-obsessed jokers, in which two gym employees (Pitt & Frances MacDormand) stumble upon a CD-R with the working memoirs (mem-wahz) of a recently fired CIA agent-slash-alcoholic (John Malkovich, wandering hilariously from scene to scene, repeatedly moaning, in a muttering whine, “what the fuck?”). The personal trainers mistake the files for important when they’re merely self-stroking, and the duo’s consequent shenanigans set off a chain reaction that ends in violence and murder.
On a basic level, Burn After Reading is a spoof of the paranoid conspiracy thriller, the type popularized in the post-Watergate ‘70s; here, the Washington backrooms are full of clowns and Princeton alum garbling old college singalongs in black-tie drunkenness. These nitwits would be incapable of concocting and carrying out a conspiracy even if they wanted to. It’s a portrait of the American government as wholly dysfunctional, paralleling the characters’ sexual dysfunctions (see: the wild dildo-equipped rocking chair that George Clooney builds in his basement.)
Malkovich’s wife, Tilda Swinton, is cheating on him with Clooney, who’s cheating on her with MacDormand, who met him on the Internet, where she meets all her beaux. (They meet in person in an oft-returned-to allée of solicitation, a lovely detail of D.C. sordidness.) “They all seem to be sleeping with each other,” notes one employee of the mystified and exasperated CIA, which is keeping tabs on the proceedings and can’t wait to get these crazies out of its life. While the central characters believe state secrets are at stake, the CIA, in the same detached observer position as the audience, recognize the situation as petty psychosexual lunacy transpiring between petty connivers.
The Coen’s reflect the nation’s-capital knuckleheadry in the vacuity and absurdity of popular culture, from fluorescent-lighted, spiritually dead home-repair warehouses to a quick clip of “Family Feud” and a romantic comedy about a girl who won’t get out of a tree. The country’s leaders and powerbrokers, and those that surround them, set the tone of the culture at large. MacDormand sets the mischief into motion in the hopes of getting a series of plastic surgeries; because of her body, “I would be laughed out of Hollywood,” she laments with a straight face. It’s enough to drive her to potential treason. When all of the characters’ selfishness and stupidity leads to a “clusterfuck” of violence, Burn After Reading shapes into an Iraq War allegory in which dimwitted self-interest inevitably results in bloodshed. “What did we learn?” a CIA man asks at the end. “I guess we learned not to do it again.” But the country hasn’t learned a damn thing. It’s even considering voting Palin! Grade: B+
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