Review: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Burn After Reading”

 After their Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, and its attendant raft of rapturous critical notices and multiple Oscars, the Coen Brothers returned to high farcical mode with Burn After Reading, an arch send-up of post-9/11 intelligence that spins a convoluted tale involving cheating spouses, dim-witted gym enthusiasts, revolving around a floating CD of “secret CIA shit,” that beloved MacGuffin of espionage thrillers. Everyone in the film holds a piece of the puzzle, and base all their knowledge of the situation on the particular part of the proverbial elephant they happen to be staring at, which leads to ever more ridiculous complications. The film begins and ends on a global satellite surveillance camera that zooms in at the start and zooms out at the end, centering on an office in CIA headquarters where veteran analyst Osborne Cox (a perpetually exploding John Malkovich) is downsized because of his apparent drinking problem. He storms out of the meeting after the first of many expletive-laden tirades that he will give in the course of the film, and decides to write an explosive tell-all memoir. Meanwhile, Osborne’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is carrying on an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal and paranoid running enthusiast who spends hours of his free time building a particularly inventive piece of sexually useful furniture. Katie plans to divorce Osborne and does some surveillance of her own, gathering his financial records on a CD. A copy of this CD somehow finds its way into the hands of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), employees at local gym HardBodies, who, convinced the disc holds all sorts of sensitive state secrets, demand ransom from Osborne for the CD in order to pay for the numerous plastic surgeries Linda wants. After Osborne refuses to pay, threatening Chad with a “shitstorm of consequences” if they continue with their plan, Linda attempts to sell the disc to the Russians, attempting to negotiate with amused Russian embassy agent Karapotkin (Olek Krupa). In one of the film’s many bold contrivances, Linda hooks up with Harry through an Internet dating site, making this already knotty scenario even more deliriously complicated.

The Coens wrote Burn After Reading while shooting No Country for Old Men, and in a way this film is a funhouse-mirror variation on their previous one. Their patented brand of misanthropy comes through in just about every character here, all parts of a live-action cartoon in which everyone makes their frenetic motions in the Coens’ carefully constructed fishbowl. But in the end, it’s hard to see what the purpose of it all is. The film is bracketed by scenes with a CIA man (David Rasche) and his superior (JK Simmons) who periodically meet for debriefing sessions, the boss with a wave of his hands directing all inconveniences to be swept under the rug, including two dead bodies. But if there’s some particular political point to be made beyond the obvious satire of the cluelessness and bumbling of intelligence organizations, I fail to find one. The tone is so scattershot and catch-as-catch-can that it never really finds a footing, and it seems that the Coens are simply amusing themselves, trying to see how far they can push the outrageousness and absurdity of their scenario before everything completely implodes in on itself. All the film’s actors, including several Coen regulars, are extremely spirited and game, doing as much as they can with the one-dimensional personages, consisting of a single character trait repeated incessantly, they have been made to embody. Malkovich especially stands out as the perpetually pissed-off ex-agent railing against the “league of morons” that has ruined his life. The casual cruelty and jokiness becomes wearying as the film goes on, resulting in a purported comedy that isn’t especially funny. And after the twisted plot they have created, the Coen resolve it with by taking a sword to their Gordian knot, concluding the story in a viciously abrupt fashion, taking care of all the surviving characters off-screen in a brief ending scene, after which the camera returns to its impassive, God’s (or devil’s) eye, staring down on the certifiably insane inhabitants below.