Burn After Reading

Less than eight months ago, the Coen brothers were being hailed as cinematic geniuses while they’re harrowing film No Country For Old Men won four Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture and Best Director(s). So, how do you follow that up? Well, the last time they produced a masterpiece–Fargo–they followed it up two years later with the hilarious cult classic The Big Lebowski. So, what do those pesky Coens have up their sleeves this time? How about a zany comedy with more plot lines than a Victorian romance novel, and more brain-dead characters than the audience at the last screening of Disaster Movie?

The plot (if you want to call it that) starts with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA man who is fired after being deciphered as an alcoholic. Cox is rather unpleasant sort of fellow, and is married to the equally unpleasant Katie (Tilda Swinton), a pediatrition who sometimes feels the need to strong-arm her young patients. Katie is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), an officer for the Treasury (though we never see him actually working), who is also married himself to a successful author of children’s books.

The last three pieces of the puzzle are two gym employees: one a middle-aged woman who is desperate to take part in several plastic surgery procedures, named Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a spunky trainer who acts like a four-year old, but is good friends with Linda. Chad is like the last person you’d want to meet at a gym, because he’ll give you useless information about the best energy bar or the best music to listen to during cycling class. They work at Hardbodies Gym, a modest business run by the sincere Ted (Richard Jenkins), who secretly loves Linda.

When Linda and Chad find a disk lying around the woman’s locker room, they believe that inside it holds secret, important CIA information. They hope that the true owner of the disk, Cox, will give them a reward. Linda could use the cash to pay for her plastic surgery, and Chad could use it for whatever it is that Chad does. Among others, there are sub-plots involving: a) Harry and Linda meeting via an online dating service; b) Katie and Harry’s attempts at divorce from their significant others (which has more relevancy than is initially percieved); and c) Harry’s invention of an unorthodox sex toy, which he has built in his basement.

Of coarse, being the Coens, they attempt to cram all of this into a 96-minute running time, and they nearly pull it off. This is the kind of film where details and storylines are being thrown at the audience left and right, and if you happen to miss them, well, you may not know exactly what’s going on. Not that its easy to follow even if you do catch them. The film ties the stories together so tightly, what we’re previewed to is a rapid-quick labyrinth of idiotic behavior and unfortunate events that snowball into disaster. This is the common theme for Coen films: normal everyday people get mixed into criminal behavior; but never before have these everyday people experienced such horrfying, unexpected consequence (okay, maybe Fargo’s woodchipper was the worst).

No doubt, the success of this film will judged by its cast. Clooney is devilishly fun as Harry, completeing what the Coen’s call their “idiot trilogy” after starring in both Coen films O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. Swinton, Jenkins, and Malkovich do a wonderful job in limited screen time, if not necessasarily moving the plot forward, but giving the film more life and more humor. The best aspects of the film come from the performances of Pitt and McDormand. They’re both mannered, over-emotional, and completely over their heads. In a world of imbesciles, Chad and Linda are the only imbeciles we find ourselves rooting for, even when one of them meets a pretty devastating state.

The film is incredibly shrewd, and does its fair share of winking with the audience. Not everything within this story works, and the Coens definitely let the film loose into whimsical territory. But what’s fun about a film like this is not the story, per se, but the characters, and nobody creates interesting, quirky characters they way those pesky brothers do. I don’t mind the off screen wrap-ups and conclusions like most people do. I believe the way the Coens make films is almost guaranteed quality work, and since nobody has been able to make such good films and be so prolific since Woody Allen, it’s safe to say they are now within the same scope of filmmakers like Scorsese and Altman.

One thing I almost forgot to mention is wonderful two-scene cameo by J.K. Simmons as a CIA Superior trying to make sense of the crazy actions these characters take part in. He is a man of few words but every line is a punch line. His performance is a summation of what is great within this film, outstanding humor, wonderful performances, and plot that is so deliciously convoluted, we can forgive it easily because we love every image on the screen. In the Pantheon of great Coen comedies, it’s not quite Lebowski or Raising Arizona, but it definitely has an edge over Cruelty or The Ladykillers.


Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen