We sort of wanted to do a spy movie,” Ethan Coen recently explained, discussing his and his brother Joel’s latest film, Burn After Reading. “It didn’t exactly turn out that way.”
Well, no, not exactly. But the movie’s subsequent evolution was less radical than you might guess from the giddy, pop-inflected trailers that advertise it. Burn After Reading may be a comedy, but it is an exceptionally dark one, in which damaged, lonely souls collide but rarely make real contact. Although very funny, it is unexpectedly sad as well, a King of Comedy in which half a dozen Rupert Pupkins vie for attention.
Specifically: a sweet but needy and sex-addicted philanderer (George Clooney); a gym administrator and patron of online dating services who imagines a vast surgical makeover will help her find love (Frances McDormand); the boss who has love to offer her if only she would notice (Richard Jenkins); a personal trainer who combines the pompadour of a ‘50s crooner with the eager innocence of a Labrador Retriever (Brad Pitt); a self-important preppie furious at having been drummed out of the CIA (John Malkovich); and the caustic pediatrician wife who is preparing to leave him (Tilda Swinton).
Such types would have fit in easily among the broad caricatures and grotesques that populated such Coens comedies as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski (to say nothing of weaker efforts such as Intolerable Cruelty and their atrocious remake of The Ladykillers). But the Coens are operating in a different key here. Even as American comedy has become almost wholly Apatowized and Ferrellified, growing louder and crasser and more self-consciously buffoonish, the Coens have gone the opposite way, ratcheting back their own zaniness. The characters in Burn After Reading may be clowns, but they are largely recognizable ones, whose failures (and, in more than one case, fatalities) are not played strictly for laughs. This is a film whose idiosyncratic vibe will not appeal to everyone, a work that does not conform to expectations but rather requires expectations to conform themselves to it. For fans of the Coens, though (and I consider myself one), it suggests, especially on the heels of No Country for Old Men, that they have rediscovered their cinematic vision after several lean years.
The plot, which ambles pleasantly through Washington, DC and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs, consists of a series of neatly interlocking missteps and misunderstandings surrounding a disk that contains the spy memoirs of one Osborne Cox (Malkovich). The disk is found and mistaken for classified material by spunky Chad (Pitt) and lovelorn Linda (McDormand), and their awkward attempt to solicit a reward for it quickly tumbles into blackmail, with escalating consequences. The circumstantial loop is closed by likable cad Harry (Clooney), who is sleeping with both Linda and Cox’s wife (Swinton), despite being married to someone else altogether. The Coens throw in a liberal helping of spooks, private eyes, and divorce attorneys, and stir.
The cast is as exceptional as one would anticipate. Clooney always manages to make contact with his inner goof in his collaborations with the Coens, though in deference to the film’s wry tone he reins in the early-Cary-Grant slapstick routine he’s relied on in the past. McDormand portrays body-obsessed Linda as a peculiar amalgam of monomania and vulnerability, with a slight, strange hint of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson. Pitt offers a variation on his canonical stoner Floyd from True Romance (some of his lines seem to be deliberate echoes), but with sports drinks replacing cannabis as his mood enhancer of choice. And Swinton shows that a swoop of orange hair can’t make her any less a White Witch. As backup, the indie dream team of Jenkins and J.K. Simmons (playing a CIA honcho who monitors the unfolding chaos) offer portraits in individual decency and bureaucratic callousness, respectively.
But it’s Malkovich who gives the movie its engine and its edge. His Cox is at once the funniest character (well, perhaps apart from Pitt) and not the least bit funny at all. Propped up by class and affectation--he wears a bow tie, attends Princeton reunions to bellow “Old Nassau” with other middle-aged inebriates, and competes with his wife to see who can more fully drop the “r”s in French words such as “chevre” and “memoir”--he’s spent a lifetime imagining himself a success, only to discover abruptly that he is in fact a failure at both work and marriage and had simply never noticed. His primary solace is found in flights of obscene invective against the “morons” and “idiots” who’ve dragged him down, diatribes in which he invests himself completely, his powerlessness masquerading as strength. Like Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak, he’s a character defined by his protean rage, and as in that case, the effect is both hilarious and unsettling.
Burn After Reading is in many ways a cruel movie, but that is not what separates it from most contemporary American comedy, which is, after all, largely predicated on pain and humiliation. Rather, what makes the film disquieting is that it does not shy from its cruelty; the many misfortunes on display are sometimes comic, but sometimes tragic, and often both at once. The usual critical suspects have already taken the movie as further evidence of the Coens’oft-alleged misanthropy, but this is a facile, if not entirely backward, reading. Why, after all, would misanthropes sketch their doomed dolts with the obvious tenderness the Coens apply to, say, Chad and Lisa, rather than present them as objects of pure derision?
As in their best films--No Country for Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo--Burn After Reading asks what happens when the social contract breaks down (in this case, expectations of marital fidelity, stable employment, the return of lost property), and answers, as before, that chaos and violence follow. Do the Coens imagine that this bleak vision describes the world as it is? I don’t pretend to know. But I suspect that, if they do, it distresses them every bit as much as it does their critics.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.