Burn After Reading
- Director:Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
- Cast:George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton
- Release Date:February 25, 2009
- The Film:4.5
- The Disc:2.0
How do you top an Oscar winning masterpiece that redefined the crime film and picked...
How do you top an Oscar winning masterpiece that redefined the crime film and picked up a truck load of Oscars? With something equally epic and daring? Not if you're The Coen Brothers. In a characteristically cheeky move, for their follow up to the much loved No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan choose the goofy screwball comedy Burn After Reading. It's a silly, slight, rambunctious affair more in line with Coen piffles like Intolerable Cruelty and Raising Arizona than rich mini-epics like Miller's Crossing or the aforementioned No Country For Old Men. It's also blindingly, exceedingly, side-splittingly funny, instantly proving that a great comedy can be both bitingly intelligent and slipping-on-a-banana-peel silly. As well as gently thumbing their noses at those that expected them to "stay serious" after becoming Oscar winners, The Coen Brothers also seem to be answering those sooks who pissed and moaned about the enigmatic, unusual ending of No Country For Old Men: if you thought that film climaxed somewhat abruptly, wait until you see Burn After Reading!
"It's a little hard to describe this one," says Joel Coen on the DVD's making-of featurette. "It's about the CIA and physical fitness, and what happens when those things meet." What happens when those things meet is pretty funny. "It's a comedy about shockingly stupid people," star George Clooney says, hitting the nail right on the head. CIA analyst Osborne Cox (a creepy, menacing John Malkovich) is on the way out: he has a drinking problem, and when he's demoted at the agency, he walks out in a fit of rage. Against the protestations of his icy, self-centred pediatrician wife, Katie (the perfectly cast Tilda Swinton), Osborne vows not to return, and instead decides to write his memoirs, which will reveal a few of the CIA's tightly held secrets. When a disc containing said memoirs ends up in the possession of slow-witted gym workers Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand's comic timing is impeccable) and Chad Feldheimer (the scene stealing Brad Pitt), things take a decidedly strange turn. They decide to blackmail Osborne Cox, which circuitously draws in US Marshall Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney, brilliantly adding another self absorbed moron to his gallery of Coens characters), who is unknowingly having affairs with both Linda and Katie. Loitering around the fringes of the plot are Ted Treffon (top-line character actor Richard Jenkins, an Oscar nominee this year for The Visitor), a Greek Orthodox priest-turned-gym manager carrying a sizeable torch for the blissfully unaware Linda Litzke; and a perennially confused CIA Officer (David Rasche hits just the right tone of formal suffering) providing equally confused updates to his brusque, borderline disinterested boss (comic force-to-be-reckoned-with J.K Simmons).
"Certain actors inspire us to write characters for them...in George's case, they're always idiots," says Joel Coen on the making-of featurette. The Coen Brothers also reveal that most of the roles in Burn After Reading were written with specific actors in mind. This results in a real fits-like-a-glove feel, with all of the actors let off the leash and allowed to experiment and toy with their characterisations. Clooney is all bizarre face-pulling and tic-driven physical comedy, leading the way for equally goofy performances from McDormand and Pitt ("Brad really embraced his inner knucklehead," says Joel Coen), while Malkovich is at his strange, unsettling best. Despite the fact that these characters are all either morons or arseholes (in some cases, both), the inspired, hectic hiccups of the plot (Linda tries to sell Osborne's disc of "secrets" to the Russians; Harry constructs an elaborate sex machine for his beloved wife, who he regularly cheats on; the hilariously insensitive Katie berates one of her ten-year-old patients) don't really give you the time to realise that none of them are particularly likeable. The Coen Brothers are often accused of misanthropy (the worst things often happen to their nicest characters) and "looking down" on their characters; there's certainly some truth to that with Burn After Reading, but that malice is at the centre of such ripe, ribald comedy that it hardly matters. Does Mel Brooks "care" about his characters in Blazing Saddles? Does Ben Stiller look down his nose at his primping actors in Tropic Thunder? Comedy is not really a genre where loving the characters is an essential ingredient for success. Sure, Burn After Reading might be mean spirited, and it doesn't have a lot to say about the human condition, but it's also one of the funniest and most inventive comedies of recent years, end of story.
Sadly, as with most Coen Brothers releases, the DVD special features are very thin on the ground, limited to three EPK-style featurettes, totaling about twenty minutes. What's there, however, is pretty good, with The Coens at their laconic best ("This isn't our first Washington movie," says Joel. "We did an 8mm adaptation of Advise And Consent when we were kids"), and the cast also offering a few good moments ("They really know what they want," Tilda Swinton says of The Coens. "They really know how to make a film"). More would have been nice, but this instant comedy classic is certainly enough on its own.