At a party last year, I had a discussion about my future with a secret service agent, who was obviously drunk. It was a fancy soiree in a big Annapolis house overlooking one of the many offshoots of the Chesapeake Bay. As this guy, eyes red from whisky, tried to maintain his balance and explain why he thought I was a perfect candidate for the Foreign Service, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could trust this joker to guard members of the government.
Fresh off an Academy Award win for Best Picture (No Country for Old Men), Joel and Ethan Cohen return with Burn After Reading, a twisty dark comedy about various Washington DC types betraying, banging, and butchering one another. Like their masterpiece The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading is short on plot but features big performances from an ensemble cast that includes Coen favorites George Clooney and Frances McDormand, as well as Brad Pitt and John Malkovich. After Osborne Cox (Malkovich, seething with rabid dog fury) is demoted to a lower-level position in the CIA, he decides to quit and write a memoir (hilariously accented to highlight his pretension; he did graduate from Princeton, you know). This career change does not suit his wife Katie (another icy performance by Tilda Swinton), who happens to be fucking Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer, a hypochondriac federal marshal who likes to surf the internet for chicks and is building something secret in his basement. Somehow, Osborne’s memoir ends up in the hands of a pair of idiot personal trainers (played by McDormand and Pitt), who think the book is classified material and an attempt to blackmail Cox.
The Coen Brothers have always loved placing boobishness front and center in their films. Whether it be Tim Robbins’ rube in The Hudsucker Proxy or Clooney’s narcissistic buffoon in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens make movies about characters who are light in the brains department, but usually heavy on heart. Even though John Goodman’s Vietnam vet did nothing but fuck up in The Big Lebowski, he did mean well. The Coens’ most indelible characters are the ones with the absence of malice, the ding-dongs who get caught up in plots way over their limited awareness. Think of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, baby thieves in Raising Arizona. Despite being kidnappers, the Coens paint them as so likable and naïve that it’s hard not to cheer for them. In Burn After Reading, however, it's difficult to care for any of the characters. Sure, Brad Pitt is charming as the too-dumb-to-be-true personal trainer, but Clooney and McDormand, usually so good in past Coen roles, come off as vapid, vain, and ultimately sociopathic. At one point, Malkovich’s character shouts that his mission is to fight against a “league of morons.” Too bad he would have to wipe every single character in this film.
Indeed, the Coens’ nihilism and contempt for their subjects may have reached a boiling point. If they are satirizing Washington types, like my secret serviceman, I can understand their reason (albeit a tired one) for crafting a film where no one is amiable and everyone is stupid. But, as a pair of minor characters attempt to make heads or tails of what's going on in two scenes separated from the main thrust of the action, one has to ask what exactly the Coens want the audience to come away with? Washington is run by idiots? Humanity is an ugly thing? It is fitting that the film's single good-intentioned character is hacked to death with a hatchet near the film’s close in a scene reminiscent of Steve Buscemi’s death scene in Fargo.
This isn’t to say the film is not worthwhile. There are plenty of laughs to sustain the movie, and Malkovich and Pitt have a truly priceless scene together. Although Burn After Reading is nowhere near the level of No Country for Old Men, it is certainly more intelligent than its predecessors, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. In fact, a lot of the flourishes we love about Coen comedies are present: repetition, characters with ridiculous names, fun with accents and vocal tics, low-level shots, and comedic violence. Perhaps Burn After Reading will be more like Lebowski, a movie with a stature that has grown over time, with characters who have since become indelible to our culture. But, unfortunately, there is no Dude to cheer for, only shallow characters who have nothing better to do than get drunk at fancy parties, worry about physical appearance, and refuse to look inward for the source of their own unhappiness.