Going into my Burn After Reading screening last night, I thought to myself “Which Coen Bros. are going to show up?” Will it be the Coens who brought us such classic comedy as Raising Arizona, O Brother! Where Are Thou?, and The Big Lebowski or will it be the team that brought us the mean-spirited and less engaging comedies Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers? BAR, believe it or not, has aspects of just about every Coen comedy put to the screen. It has the violence of Fargo, the funny “George Clooney eyebrow effect” of O Brother, the zaniness of Arizona, the manic divorce talk of Cruelty, and the “plan gone awry” theme of EVERY Coen film ever made. What’s more is that it has a Coen stamp if its own, and its a very solid movie.
The plot is basically this (warning: it’s not really the tale of espionage that the trailers and commercials are leading us to believe): Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) wants to divorce her husband, CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), so she can be with Harry (George Clooney). Harry is a serial adulterer who becomes enthralled with Linda (Frances McDormand). When Linda’s co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) finds a disc containing names, accounts, and addresses (put together by Katie so that she can get the couples finances in order before she files for divorce), they decide to hold the disc ransom from Osbourne (who thinks the miscreants have swiped his memoirs), so that Linda can pay for several plastic surgeries. Of course, things unfold from there, characters get intertwined with one another, amazing coincidences bring revelations to life, and we laugh our asses off all in the meanwhile.
The performances are great, and with any Coen film that’s usually the case. Clooney is in “nervous mode” and the guys comedic chops can never be over-stated. He’s a joy to watch. McDormand is doing another highly effected accent a la Fargo, but is still the same wide-eyed optimist that we love to see her as. She plays her downtrodden self-esteem very well, yet she’s still a radiantly beautiful woman. When we see her unknowingly turn-down her boss Ted (played by the magnificent Richard Jenkins) we really feel for him, because he just can’t tell her how humbled he is by her, and how he doesn’t think she needs multiple surgeries. Swinton plays the role of shrew, which she unfortunately is relegated to in most movies, but you don’t get an Oscar for playing a bitch if you aren’t a really powerful one, right?
Two performances stand above the rest in the film, though. Malkovich relishes the “f” bomb in this movie. Nearly every line he says contains one or two “fucks” and he holds that f a quarter second longer than most. It really adds some passion to his character, actually. The other performance is Pitt. He gives the most hilariously oblivious performance since Hank Azaria in The Birdcage. Every mannerism and look of Pitt’s will garner a laugh from the audience, and not in a “Hey that’s Tom Cruise swearing and being uncharacteristically unkempt in Tropic Thunder” kind of way, but in a “Brad Pitt in True Romance-mode” kind of way. All the performers are having a lot of fun with this film, which is what it’s supposed to be, after all. I want to give special props to J.K. Simmons and David Rasche who take the deadpan comedy of the CIA officials they play to that extra level in every scene and watching the two of them interact is like Christmas.
The Coens have a tremendous eye for film. They know what makes you laugh, they know what makes you think, and they know how to get you shaking in your seat. More than that, they know how to tell an engaging story. Their attention to detail is extraordinary. There’s a couple montages in the film where we see a faceless CIA officer walking with purpose on hard floors and each hallway has a different ambient noise. Lesser directors would’ve just put music over the scene, but the Coens know that every room has a different ambient noise. The dialogue is sharp and overflowing with irony, the stakes in the plot are high (or at least are perceived as life-and-death), and the actors play off each other with incredible ease and chemistry in every scene. There’s not much more you can ask for in a comedy. The Coens even go so far as to parody their ending to No Country for Old Men, and when you see the film, you’ll know what I mean.
Burn After Reading is not the best Coen film, or even the best Coen comedy ever made, but I’d put it up next to any other comedy released this year. It’s stylish, witty, raunchy, and 90 minutes of pure adrenaline-fueled fun. From the directors of No Country for Old Men, there couldn’t have been a more drastic or welcome shift.