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Burn After Reading – Review by Dan Geddes

Burn After Reading

George Clooney

...

Harry Pfarrer

Frances McDormand

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Linda Litzke

Brad Pitt

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Chad Feldheimer

John Malkovich

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Osborne Cox

Tilda Swinton

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Katie Cox

Richard Jenkins

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Ted

Elizabeth Marvel

...

Sandy Pfarrer

Written, produced and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Review by Dan Geddes

This review contains spoilers!

Burn After Reading is a funny, but unsatisfying tragi-comedy in the familiar Coen brothers style. In terms of story arc, it resembles other Coen films, such as Fargo, where through incompetence and weird coincidences petty schemes snowball into complicated messes.

This is an especially black, screwball comedy where the viewer isn’t even expected to care much about the shallow characters. Instead, we are supposed to laugh at these A-list stars’ self-deprecating performances, and we often do (especially when Malkovich, McDormand and Pitt are on screen). The characters are basically caricatures (parts written expressly for these performers) revealing the Coens’ misanthropic view of some ostensibly typical DC-based Americans.

Osbourne “Ozzy” Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who refuses to accept his demotion gracefully. He quits in a huff, vowing to write his memoirs (“mem-wah” as he later calls it in his affected French pronunciation), and storms home to drink. His wife, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), a cold, stylishly dressed pediatrician, is only worried about the financial implications of his unemployment. Since it’s hard to imagine them ever having been a loving couple, we are not surprised that Swinton is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Department of Treasury employee suffering from nervous tics and imagined food allergies. Swinton soon meets with a divorce lawyer, who counsels her to obtain his financial information, which she burns to a CD.

The characters are petty and self-absorbed. Ozzy thinks everyone else is an idiot. Swinton only wants to dump him to be with her paramour, Clooney. Clooney cruises internet dating sites searching for as many middle-aged women to bed as possible, always telling them that he is in the final stages of divorcing his wife, Sandy (Elizabeth Pfarrer), a successful children’s book author.

At first you might think that these two couples joined by a secret infidelity will define this movie.  But then we are introduced to another unhappy middle-aged American, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who is determined to have cosmetic surgery performed on her aging body. This will to rejuvenate her appearance is her only real motive; her shrill idiocy is her most salient trait. She works at a gym and has every opportunity to exercise her way to the body she wants, but instead she keeps drinking sugary drinks from enormous plastic containers and seeks the shortcut of cosmetic surgery.

After her friend Chad (Brad Pitt) ends up with the CD containing Ozzy’s information (including his memoir), McDormand and Pitt hatch a scheme to sell the CD back to Cox in exchange for $50,000 (to fund her cosmetic surgery). It’s a hare-brained scheme, hatched by idiots (an idiot plot); but without it, there’s no movie, so we go along. The CD is a sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin, rendering the complex events that surround it even more overblown and meaningless.

The situation surrounding the meaningless CD gets progressively more complicated, but the overlapping plots are disjointed and the characters are largely unsympathetic anyway. Instead of a compelling story, this is a movie about the (silly and/or comedic) performances. With an ensemble cast, the lead actors must share screen time in this relatively short, 95 minute movie. The actors make their marks in short, often truncated scenes. The movie also cuts between the different plot lines, which dampens the cumulative effect of the performances.

Malkovich has some hilarious moments (“This is a crucifixion!” he screams as he’s being demoted, sticking his hands straight out). He is convincing as the arrogant, Princeton-educated CIA analyst, impatient with the perceived idiocy of everyone else. The short scene of his Princeton reunion (the alumni drunkenly singing in a drawing room) shows how far he has fallen (an unemployed Ivy Leaguer with a superiority complex who will later stalk around in his underwear). Some might say the humor of Malkovich’s character relies too much on the F-word, but it’s really more about his middle-aged disappointment (which is true for most of the characters). Malkovich has a good time screaming at people that they are morons. So he makes a good counterpoint to the most moronic characters (McDormand’s Linda Litzke and Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer).

Malkovich’s character is especially of disdainful of Chad, who calls him up in the middle of the night with his absurd blackmail deal for the CD. An overtly idiotic character like Chad is just the thing to make Ozzy explode with rage at the confederacy of dunces (“league of morons” he calls them) that surrounds him.

It’s not explained why Chad is willing to do so much for Linda. Chad is a shallow metrosexual or homosexual. Their odd friendship seems like the strongest relationship in the movie; maybe their mutual shallowness is the tie that binds. But it’s largely one-sided exchange. Linda uses Chad for her own ends. He goes along with the blackmail scheme because it is necessary for the plot; but he gives the impression that he does it out of sheer excess energy, or because he wants to be involved in something “big-time.” Certainly Pitt seems to enjoy the character. (“Osbourne Cox?” he asks repeatedly, incredulous he could be talking on the phone with someone he believes to be a powerful spy.) Chad and Linda represent a ne’er do well class, while the other principles (Clooney, Malkovich, Swinton, Marvel) live professional-class lives.

McDormand’s Linda is a funny caricature, but incredibly shallow. McDormand has played a Coen idiot before (as in Raising Arizona), but never as one of the lead idiots as here. We are surprised by the lengths she will go to get her cosmetic surgery. She’s unconcerned after Ozzy punches Chad in the face. (“Where’s the money?” she blubbers as blood runs down his face). She unflinchingly crashes into the back of Malkovich’s car and then drives directly to the Russian embassy to sell the CD there.

Even while attempting to sell state secrets to the Russians, she is impatient (“I have a date!” she tells the Russian assistant cultural attaché.) Linda has such a sense of entitlement that she thinks nothing of protesting “I’m an American citizen!” even while being kicked out of the Russian embassy for trying to sell what she believes are important US state secrets to the Russians.

George Clooney’s Harry is the maybe the least funny of the principle characters. He has nervous tics. He constantly exercises to keep his sexual energy up; he seems like a sex addict. Clooney can be a bit funny playing a dork, but it’s a self-conscious performance, playing off his stardom. He conveys the shallowness of the womanizer, having empty laughs at the same stupid movie Linda has already seen with a previous internet date.  

In addition to the principals, supporting players also have nice moments. Richard Jenkins’ Ted (Linda’s boss at Hard Bodies) might be the most sympathetic character in the movie. He seems to genuinely care about Linda in a movie where no one really cares about each other. (But if she is so shallow, then what does he see in her?) He even falls back into drinking and commits a criminal offense for her. He suggests a lost moral order (he’s a fallen priest), one in which people are not so empty and appearance-obsessed.

Burn After Reading doesn’t look like a Coen brothers film. Their long-time cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was not available to shoot this picture. It has almost a TV feel to it, but this seems like a deliberate choice more than an absence of production values. The details are done correctly. The filmmakers do an effective job of capturing the DC area setting, one region that had not yet been featured in their films.

Brad Pitt’s murder by Clooney is supposed to be powerful or funny in the way that the violence in Pulp Fiction (or Raising Arizona) is funny. It is senseless, accidental, and signifies nothing. 

The violence at the end, when Malkovich uses his ax on Richard Jenkins, feels a bit gratuitous. It’s credible, because we’ve seen Malkovich play psychopaths (Con Air) before, but it too transparently mimics a Coen scene we’ve seen before (at the end of Fargo). So it’s de rigueur violence.

We laugh at the power of the CIA Superior (JK Simmons, in two, very funny short scenes) to decide the fates of everyone involved in a bizarre situation that should never have been an Agency issue. He just wants the problem to go away, so he’s relieved to hear when people involved have died. But it strains credulity—even if it’s funny—to hear the CIA will pay for Linda Litzke’s plastic surgery just to keep her quiet about the whole crazy train of events.

Linda gets what she wants: despite her incompetence, despite her vain desire for plastic surgery that she can’t afford. She engenders so much violence and confusion. Ironically, her push to get more information from Osbourne Cox leads to her losing the George Clooney character, just when he has fallen into her lap. Instead, she will get her plastic surgery, but will she get another relationship? Well, we don’t care.

That’s the problem with too many Coen films. If you make a movie about idiots, you can have a lot of fun at their expense, but only at the sacrifice of the emotional connection with the audience that only credible characters can bring. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum identified this problem in an essay about Fargo:

…if one considers all the laughs found in Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo, there are very few that aren’t predicated on some version of the notion that people are idiots—the people on-screen, that is; those in the audience laughing at the idiots are hip aficionados, just like the Coens (Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, 156).

The Coens and the stars clearly had a good time making this picture. And there are some laughs for the audience, as well as a jaundiced look at contemporary American aspirations. But if the goal is audience engagement, then sympathetic characters (such as those in The Big Lebowski, in which the filmmakers have fondness even for characters such as Walter) will win more lasting audience favor.

Dan Geddes

30 December 2012