“If you ever carried out your proposed threat you would experience such a shitstorm of consequences my friend your empty little head would be spinning faster than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle back there.”
“Talking here about department heads and their names and shit. And then there’s these other files that are just, like, numbers. Arrayed. Numbers and dates and numbers and numbers and dates.And numbers and… I think that’s the shit, man… The raw intelligence.”
“And you are not ideological?”
Hard to follow up one of the best thrillers of all time so why not have the Coen Bros go back to screwball comedy in a funny movie that skewers the US intelligence community and the surrounding bureaucracy? “Burn After Reading” came out in 2008 around the time I visited some friends in Philadelphia. As I recall, we went to a downtown theater to see the latest Coen movie and laughed our asses off.
As the film opens, we see a “god perspective” looking down on America. The picture eventually zooms in closer and closer to the Washington DC area and into a building. Members of the government bureaucracy are meeting with Osborne Cox (so great to see John Malkovich in a Coen flick) to remove him from his SIGINT position because of a drinking problem. Cox, of course, denies this and lashes out at another partner in the room: “I have a drinking problem? Fuck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon. Compared to you we ALL have a drinking problem!” The stage is set.
Cox is something of a true believer in what he does. Romanticizing the good ole days when people were dedicated and focused on their mission, he decides to write his memoir after he quits the CIA. Through wild circumstances, a portion of his memoir ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym rats: Chad (a crazy and hilarious Brad Pitt performance) and Linda (Frances McDormand). These gym rats believe erroneously that they have stumbled upon classified information and seek to blackmail Cox in order to get some cash. Literally, a gigantic comedy of errors and misunderstandings.
At one point, the gym rats get rejected by Cox regarding their blackmail offer and Cox angrily cusses them out so they decide to take their disk to….the Russian embassy. Attempting to make a deal with the officials at the embassy, offering what they believe is the secret intelligence for a sum of money, places this whole thing in even wackier territory especially considering our current news headlines for the past 8 months. Joel and Ethan Coen made this film ten years too early.
Now, George Clooney, in his third go around with the Coens, plays Harry Pfarrer who works for the treasury department. He is “happily” married and also is a rampant sex addict. Katie Cox (wife of Osborne) portrayed by Tilda Swinton has been having a long term affair with Harry. During this time, Harry begins having an affair with Linda much to the chagrin of the manager of the gym (played by Richard Jenkins) who is a sad sack that is madly in love with Linda. The Coen’s pretty much go full Woody Allen here and maybe even beyond.
The plot is a labyrinth with all these characters but what is hilarious is the core of the story is a misunderstanding and thereby is really based on nothing. Of course, that is intentional in a film about the intelligence community and government bureaucracy thereby making things all the funnier.
My quibble with the film is mostly at the end. That is when the tone of the project changes from an absurd comedy (meant in a good way) to dark as in mean-spirited. It just doesn’t seem like a few of the scenes at the conclusion fit with the rest of the movie which is just nutty fun. Also, the writing at the tail end which brings some resolution seems like cheating. It is abrupt and things that took place with certain characters are not shown on screen but are just explained by two bureaucrats talking to each other. As much as I laugh at the conversation itself, this seemed like lazy writing.
All that to say, “Burn After Reading” is one of the Coen’s funniest movies. With their focus on exploring different elements of American culture through different settings throughout their filmography, it is inevitable they would eventually wind up in Washington DC. Could this be anything other than a screwball comedy?
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):
No Country for Old Men (review here)
Fargo (review here)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)
The Big Lebowski (review here)
Miller’s Crossing (review here)
The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)
Raising Arizona (review here)
Burn After Reading
The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)
Blood Simple (review here)
Barton Fink (review here)
Intolerable Cruelty (review here)
The Ladykillers (review here)