After the critical and financial success of last year’s “No Country for Old Men”, the bar has never been higher for the wildly talented Coen Brothers. After reaching the inarguable success their devoted fans always knew they would achieve, where could Joel and Ethan go? How do you follow up a masterpiece like “No Country”?
The answer is: you don’t. You stay true to who you are as filmmakers and let the rest follow. For the Coen Brothers, the truth is always in finding a genre of filmmaking and making it their own. Whether it’s film noir like “The Man Who Wasn’t There” or a gangster flick like “Miller’s Crossing”, the Coens know how to twist the familiar and turn it into something completely new. Their films go beyond spoof, parody, and homage. They can only be described as [genre]-by way of the Coen Brothers. “Burn After Reading” is a spy-thriller-by way of the Coen Brothers and it’s one where the writing and the performances are quintessential Coens but it’s all slightly deflated by flat cinematography, score, and editing.
In a acutely self-aware series of bizarre circumstances, hapless gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) stumble upon the memoirs of recently resigned CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) and decide to blackmail him for his non-secrets so that Linda can afford to have cosmetic surgery. At the same time, Osbourne’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is sleeping with U.S. Marshall Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a man who is cheating on his wife not just with Katie but with women he meets on an online dating website.
The potential for how these relationships intersect isn’t immediately obvious and even the film stops to marvel at the nonsensical nature of this happenstance. In an odd way, it shares the same ethos as “No Country” in assuming that the world is a random and unforgiving place; the big difference is that here it’s played for laughs instead of tragedy.
The screenplay is exceedingly sharp and delivered by a great crew of actors. Swinton doesn’t get much to do (although her character does get set up into a great joke) but the rest of the leads all get some shining moments. Whether it’s small stuff like Malkovich’s pronunciation of the word “memoir” or the broad comedy of Brad Pitt’s delightfully ebullient personal trainer, this is a cast that delivers. Best among them is McDormand who reminds me of “Fargo’s” Jerry Lundegaard but perkier and wanting bigger titties. There are many different styles of humor on display “Reading” and all of them work. It’s also a film that’s going to bear repeat viewing not only for one-liners that will grow on you (I’m already quoting “I have a drinking problem?”) but the thematic elements of the script and the fates of the characters are worthy of serious analysis.
Unfortunately, the technical aspects of the film just aren’t up to the same level. It’s all passable, but “Burn After Reading” doesn’t have the visual pop of the other Coen Brothers films. There are some memorable shots and the boys do an effective job of capturing bits of the Washington, D.C. landscape, but it’s all feel very dry and doesn’t seem to share the subtle smirk of the script’s tone and the actors’ performances. The music also feels too heavy at times and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was hearing Carter Burwell’s leftovers from “No Country”. Finally, I think the editing of the film is a bit lacking. It’s not that the film feels too fat or too lean, but like the cinematography, it rarely pops. “Reading” doesn’t need to be a loud film, but there doesn’t seem to be a total embrace of the film’s wonderful tone.
“Burn After Reading” is as smart and sharply acted as any other of the Coen Brothers’ great films. It’s a shame that the other aspects of the film aren’t as good, but they certainly don’t hurt the film and shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing how once again, the Brothers Coen are the masters of any genre they set their sights on.