Burn After Reading

Burn_After_Reading__01In the universe of Joel and Ethan Coen, people will do the stupidest and most dangerous things, often for money. “And for what?” asked police officer Marge Gunderson at the end of the Coens’ Fargo. “For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?” That role won Frances McDormand a well-deserved Oscar, and here she is again in the Coens’ latest, Burn After Reading, as Marge’s polar opposite, Linda Litzke, who works at a gym and needs four cosmetic surgeries to tighten up her aging flesh. When a disc seemingly containing sensitive CIA information falls into her lap, Linda of course wants to parlay it into her nip-and-tuck fund.

Burn After Reading is a beautifully inhuman spy farce in which nobody amounts to anything more than their loopy desires. Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) wants to date as many women as he can; his married status doesn’t trouble him overmuch. It’s not about the sex, primarily; he loves the process. Recently ousted CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) wants to write his memoirs. Linda’s gym coworker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) doesn’t seem to have anything between his ears other than a willingness to go along with whatever seems fun at the time. All these characters, and others, circle around the movie’s McGuffin, the disc, courtesy of Osborne’s hard drive.

It hardly matters that this candle isn’t worth the chase, nor that the events don’t resolve neatly; to the Coens, that’s part of the chaotic fun. The movie, like so many other Coen projects, fixates on the two prime film noir motivators, greed and paranoia. Those things also powered the Coens’ two Oscar-winners, 1996’s Fargo and 2007’s No Country for Old Men; the Coens find few things funnier than the hapless attempts of average dummies to make the big score and hold onto it. The characters are loosely sketched by their quirks — Harry’s preoccupation with wood flooring; Linda’s relentless effort to stay upbeat — and their obsessions. The actors, as always, respond gratefully to the opportunity to speak laser-sharp Coen dialogue and enact plot twists that tip from the absurd to the casually bloody.

Burn After Reading may strike some as trivial coming after the Coens’ serious-as-cancer No Country for Old Men. It’s nothing new, though; the brothers have always mixed it up, and each new film takes its place in one of the most unique portfolios in recent cinema. (No Country, after all, could be taken as a very, very deadpan black comedy.) Carter Burwell, the regular Coen composer whose music was largely absent from No Country, returns with a vengeance here, sealing each scene with a mock-climactic chord. By now, the Coens don’t need to call attention to their immaculate style or their nods to other films (there’s even a twisted reversal on a scene from Blue Velvet); the mechanisms snap together naturally. Everyone runs around, pursuing or being pursued; even the most seemingly expendable bits — a bitterly drunk Osborne crooning at a Princeton party; Harry’s trip to Home Depot — pay off later. And then there’s the great J.K. Simmons as a CIA bigwig, dyspeptically assessing the whole mess from his desk and issuing a sort of capsule review of the film he’s in. His scenes are, perhaps, unnecessary, but I wouldn’t trade them — or anything else in this darkly playful film — for anything.

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