The Coen Brothers’ surprising hit No Country For Old Men was a marked departure from their traditional, well-known style. Sure, they made some great thrillers and crime movies in the form of Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, but they made their bones on their ability to tell jokes. Specifically, black comedy jokes. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the booze and bong-fueled Raymond Chandler tale of The Dude, the best pair of brother filmmakers in Hollywood history knows how to craft a caper full of things you shouldn’t laugh at, but can’t help but be amused by.
When Joel and Ethan made their move to serious after so many years of comedy success, I was a bit worried. Fortunately, the results were brilliant. Now they’re moving back to their comedy bend with their latest, Burn After Reading. With an all-star cast of characters and all the No Country attention, there was no doubt the film would be successful at the box office, but how would the Coens handle the transition back to comedy?
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a low-level CIA analyst with a bit of a drinking problem. When he quits his CIA job to write his memoirs, this puts additional strain on his already lousy relationship with his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is considering divorcing her husband for her lover, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Unfortunately for her, while trying to gather information to use against her husband during the divorce proceedings, the disc she used to gather the information falls into the wrong hands.
Those hands belong to brainless personal trainers Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who promptly come up with a scheme to turn their find (they believe it is serious information) into some much-needed cash. Between the two of them there’s about one brain to share, and it’s not a very smart brain. Even with Hardbodies manager Ted (Richard Jenkins, who is brilliant as the one sane person) trying his best to protect the two, things get out of control very quickly for the overmatched Chad and Linda.
This cast is brilliant. George Clooney finally has a great role to focus his omnipresent smarminess. Frances McDormand is brilliant as the single-minded Linda. As for Brad Pitt, well… if there’s one thing you can say about the man, it’s that he’s learned how to pick his roles now that he’s a big star. When he’s not playing too seriously, he’s a brilliant actor and his Chad just takes scenes left and right with his sheer dim-witted goofiness. John Malkovich is always good, though his character doesn’t really come around to being truly Malkovichian until the end. Tilda Swinton probably has the weakest performance of the main characters, as her role is pretty one note, but she plays the ice queen well enough. Richard Jenkins is probably the most likable, sad character in a film full of flawed characters, and JK Simmons provides the most amount of laughs in the smallest amount of screen time as his nameless CIA director character.
Burn After Reading isn’t up to par with The Big Lebowski, but it’s still one of the better movies I’ve seen this year. It’s a wild, unpredictable thrill ride. Things do get a bit messy at times in terms of stray plot threads, and it’s definitely something you have to pay attention to when following along, but even if you lack the wherewithal to do that, it’s still incredibly funny in the most delightfully morbid way imaginable. It’s a bit like a live-action cartoon.
While the plot is a bit aimless, the film itself is edited very tightly. There are a lot of the expected Coen Brothers film tricks and lots of sharp editing. There are a lot of good contrasts in the film, and a lot of great cuts to seemingly unrelated (but actually related in terms of the film’s progression) reaction shots, especially from Simmons’ character. He struck me as sort of the voice of the audience in the film (and he remains a great supporting actor who should get more work outside of prison shows and Spider-man).
The material is very funny, as well, and the characters seem to balance one another. Swinton’s haughty bitch seems to balance out McDormand’s eager insecure personal trainer. Ditto Clooney’s smarmy prat with Harris’s polite and shy manager. This is very much a movie about diametric opposition. That might be one of the reasons behind the (at times) aimlessness of the film; it’s trying too hard to balance everything out.
In spite of everything, the movie still moves briskly, and most importantly, it’s funny. Those with a keen eye will spot a lot of Coen Brothers references, which served to remind me that this wasn’t No Country or meant to be anything that serious. It’s just a wickedly funny, odd caper film the likes of which the Coens are famous for. It’s nothing groundbreaking or staggering; it’s just a comfortable return to form. The Coen Brothers can take the grimmest incident and make it funny.