Burn After Reading Review
There’s nothing new about the Coen Brothers populating their films with "characters" rather than people, and that’s not necessarily even a bad thing when you consider that a considerable part of the Coen’s appeal is built upon such wonderful creations as The Dude in The Big Lebowski or Dapper Dan Man Everett Ulysses McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Arguably there’s still a case for larger-than-life figures like serial killer Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, serial divorcee Marilyn and ruthless lawyer Miles Massey in Intolerable Cruelty, but the cold calculation of the creation of quirky characters seems to be accruing diminishing returns in more recent films, the culmination of which is an entire cast of one-note performances that make up their latest film Burn After Reading, where the common underlying factor of their personalities is "stupid".
Again that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a comedy film that sets out to deliver nothing more than a few laughs. The set-up is certainly promising when two employees of the Hard Bodies fitness club stumble upon a computer disc lost by one of their members at the gym, a disc that seems to contain the personal files of a CIA agent. Realising that the files probably contain a lot of what twitchy fitness fanatic Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) eloquently describes as "highly classified shit", he and fellow employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), desperately seeking funds a series of cosmetic operations that will revitalise her single middle-aged love life, realise that they’ve hit on a scheme to make a lot of money by returning the material to the agent for a rather large finder’s fee or, failing that, by selling it to the Russians.
What they haven’t counted on however is that the object of their extortion scheme, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), is nothing more than a minor official at the CIA, a bit of a maniac who has recently quit the agency after being demoted because of his increasingly apparent drinking problem. The documents on the disc consequently add up to little more than his uneventful memoirs (pronounced "mem-whah") and statements of his bank accounts gathered by his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) in preparation for divorce proceedings. She intends to settle down with her lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a twitchy paranoid former Flight Marshall who has no real intention of giving up his wife or the numerous other casual affairs he has been conducting.
After an achingly slow start that struggles to define what are in effect rather simplistic one-note characters - Pitt is an airhead fitness fanatic, McDormand is single-minded about getting her surgery done, Clooney is a bed-hopping philanderer, Malkovich is a short-fused lunatic and Swinton a cold bitch – and having established the relationships between them, the elements eventually if somewhat awkwardly slot into place. It’s only by the time the punch-line is delivered and the closing credits roll then that the viewer is in a better position to assess just how slickly the film has been put together and how effectively the directors have sustained the quirky twists of a plot that is perhaps not so much intricate as neatly constructed. That however sounds like a familiar charge laid against the Coens, the mechanics of the plot, script and direction making the film certainly easy to admire, but leaving the viewer ultimately wondering whether there’s really any point to it. In a film like this there is surely only one effective measure of how well Burn After Reading succeeds and that will depend on how funny you find it. Unfortunately good solid laughs are relatively hard to come by here.
Certainly there are some wonderful moments, a few amusing one-liners and some excellent "rapport" between the cast (McDormand and Clooney in particular working well together), but on the whole it feels flat and uninspired, with far fewer funny moments than you would be entitled to expect from the promise of the film’s trailer and from the stellar cast that has been assembled, many of them with hand-tailored roles written for them. With the exception perhaps only of John Malkovich, the cast overplay their limited characters and end up self-consciously mugging rather than acting. Sadly, again with the Coens, it’s a question of the film and the characters lacking any "humanity" and you can’t really have humour if there is no humanity behind it (by way of contrast I refer you back to The Dude and Everett McGill and their sincere if somewhat deluded belief in their ability to see justice done). If you’re laughing at all here – and as I say it is an uninspired Coen’s script this time around - you’re laughing at the characters for being stupid rather than with them for them being regular people with normal flaws and failings. That of course leaves the Coens – as they did in No Country For Old Men - free to treat their characters as off-handedly and callously as they like, and some might feel they treat their audience the same way.