Were Joel and Ethan Coen as baffled as the rest of us by the pyramid of conspiracies that was Syriana? Their new comedy, Burn After Reading, features its star, George Clooney, in a burlesque of the genre: the paranoid thriller as dumb, bloody farce. The conspirators—a spurned CIA analyst (John Malkovich), a sex-addict federal marshal (Clooney), and a pair of fitness-club employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt)—are puny stooges, their motives childishly self-centered. The MacGuffin is a nonstarter. No one but the audience gets the full (ridiculous) picture. It’s basically a one-joke movie—thin stuff. But the Coens juggle their genre tropes nimbly; they’re like birthday-party clowns for cinephiles.
From the opening, they nail the vocabulary: the camera that plunges from a satellite view of Earth to the corridors of Langley while the drums pound portentously; the behind-the-clacking-shoes shot of the agent on his way to a momentous meeting. That agent (Malkovich) soon learns that he is being demoted, and he’s sure that the grounds are unsound, that the charge he’s a total lush is a mere pretense. He will have his revenge! He will pen a memoir and expose the agency’s inner workings! On his yacht, guzzling gin and rambling into his recorder (“George Kennan, a personal friend of mine … ”), he is unaware that the net is tightening; that his chill spouse (Tilda Swinton) is having brisk, resolute sex with a government operative (Clooney) and plans to seize his assets; and that somewhere nearby, a fortyish woman (McDormand) craves liposuction badly enough to betray her country with his secrets. Hidden cameras, spies, furtive break-ins, dark sedans on characters’ tails, the Russian embassy—the espionage ingredients are all there, but layered into a uniquely Coensian fruitcake.
Burn After Reading slots neatly—perhaps too neatly—into the Coens’ body of work, in which humans act out of such narrow self-interest that they become, as the title of the brothers’ debut feature spells out, blood simple. (The Coens’ most all-seeing protagonist, Billy Bob Thornton’s barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There, is also their most impotent.) In adapting Cormac McCarthy for their sublime No Country for Old Men, they found a way to give this vision moral weight: God had left the field; chaos was ascendant; stooges died awful, meaningless deaths. They reportedly wrote Burn After Reading and No Country at the same time, back and forth, and Lordy did they let their juvenile sides run amok. Both films end on a note of resignation, but here it’s with a shrug and a little “Oh, well.”
Burn After Reading plays as if it was great fun to make—maybe more fun than to see. With his clammy air of superiority, Malkovich is an inspired choice for a disaffected spook, but the character recedes, and the movie could use more of his weird deadpan. Everyone else is way amped up. Clooney plays a man with one-tenth the charisma of, say, George Clooney—unsettled and uncentered, all twitches and starts. He and Swinton must have loved going nuts together after their tense rapport in Michael Clayton. Pitt’s pleasure in playing a sweet, muscled-up boob, who slits his eyes when he pretends to be a sinister blackmailer, is infectious—although it’s all variations on a simple theme. McDormand is fearlessly grotesque, rocketing through her bits with the single-minded dementia of Carol Burnett. Too bad her final scene is off-camera. We hear about it (during a briefing with JK Simmons as the CIA superior), but the actress has no big finish.
Neither does the movie, unless the big finish is that there’s no big finish—which is funny (I laughed) but deeply unsat- isfying. It’s worth remembering that the Coens’ comic masterpiece, The Big Lebowski, is a genre parody, too—the joke being “What if we took a convoluted, Chandleresque L.A. detective story and made the gumshoe a slacker pothead asshole?” But the brothers brought to it the full force of their loopy imagination, and the protagonist (Jeff Bridges) attained so much stature he transcended the gimmick. Burn After Reading is untranscendent, a little tired, the first Coen brothers picture on autopilot. In the words of the CIA superior, it’s “no biggie.”
You could, however, regard the film in a more positive light: that No Country was so relentlessly bleak that the Coens needed this doodle to keep their spirits aloft. In which case, burn, baby, burn.
The critic Godfrey Cheshire narrates his penetrating first film, the documentary Moving Midway, and his point of view is always right there on the surface. At the same time he’s telling a story (brilliantly), he’s thinking through it, testing its underpinnings, opening it up to history and analysis and divergent perspectives; and both strands—narrative and critical—come together with hardly a seam. (The stitches that do show are rather elegant.)