After years wasted on painfully average comedic fare, the Coen brothers wowed everyone last year with their gritty Texas thriller No Country For Old Men, and the world stood up to pronounce the brothers rejuvenated. Now it’s 2008, and the Coen brothers are back again. Unfortunately, our predictions of rehabilitation for Hollywood’s most talented directing duo may have been premature. Yes they’re back, but it’s the Coens of The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty who have reared their heads. It’s the Coens who make those marginally interesting yet ultimately disappointing comedies which everyone watches and then soon forgets. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that they didn’t dress George Clooney up like Colonel Sanders.
Burn After Reading is put together with an all-star ensemble cast, though there’s no real starring role here. Screen time is split fairly equally between George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, and Francis McDormand; with Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, and J.K. Simmons thrown in at intervals for good measure. As for what exactly this big ensemble is doing… I couldn’t tell you. The movie’s plot is a big, pointless thing thrown together with silly, mawkish coincidences. Malkovich is an ex-CIA agent in the middle of a divorce. Pitt and McDormand are wacky personal trainers at a local gym, who find Malkovich’s financial records on the floor of their locker room and mistake them for CIA intelligence. Clooney is the guy screwing Malkovich’s wife, and for that matter any other woman he can find on the internet to lure into his sex dungeon whenever his own wife is out of town.
Individually, every actor involved gets a fantastic, quirky, outright weird persona to play around with. Pitt and Clooney especially seem to be having a ball with their parts; Pitt a dimwitted idiot, Clooney a fetishistic sex addict who seems to be held together primarily by an assortment of amusing nervous tics and the overwhelming need to go for a quick run. Their scenes are fantastically entertaining, sometimes even outright funny. Put together though, it never adds up to anything. There’s no real point to any of what’s going on in Burn After Reading. It’s not that it’s confusing; it’s just that it’s not really going anywhere.
Burn After Reading is at best, a meandering farce carried much too far. Yes there’s a lot of talk of spying in Burn After Reading and yes it has its share of violence, murder, and shooting; but it has more in common with the obscure (but hilarious) Peter Bogdanovich comedy Noises Off than it does with better Coens work like Fargo or No Country For Old Men.
More than anything, Burn feels like the Coen brothers trying to re-create the lightning in a bottle magic of The Big Lebowski by taking a scattershot approach to comedy writing. Lebowski was a fairly broad farce, it’s true. But it’s anchored by one man, a man with a vision, the man for his time and place. Burn After Reading is what The Big Lebowski might have been with Jeff Bridges erased from the equation, leaving the script to follow the ultimately unfulfilling journeys of supporting characters like Walter, Theodore, Maude, Bunny, and Da Jesus. It’s an entire movie full of Walters, and as much as I love Sobchak he’s just not as compelling without The Dude there takin’ er easy for all us sinners.
There’s a good hour or so of chuckling to be had in Burn After Reading, it’s not as if it’s a disaster. Hell, it’s probably worth watching just to see the thing that George Clooney’s character is building in his basement. You’d never guess, not in your wildest dreams. It’s simply the overall plot that lacks any real direction. Maybe Joel and Ethan thought they were making some sort of biting satire, and simply took on too broad a target. If they’re satirizing anything, it must be stupid people, which is, in its own way, kind of stupid. Dumb people are not intelligent. Thanks boys, for that scathing message. Still even at their most inane, Joel and Ethan Coen have managed something that is at the least, more entertaining than most of the other comedic dreck lurking around in the theater. It may have no clear reason to exist, but Burn After Reading’s characters are so completely over the top and its cast is so committed to the script’s disconnected, slapstick insanity, that as long as you’re not looking for anything more than surface level silliness you’ll probably walk out laughing.