For today’s entry in the Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderfully satiric look at espionage, greed, lust, and stupidity, 2008’s Burn After Reading.
Like most Coen Brothers films, Burn After Reading tells the dark story of a group of obsessives who all think that they’re far more clever than they actually are. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who, because of his alcoholism and generally sour personality, is demoted. Cox angrily quits his job and then starts working on his memoirs. Meanwhile, Cox’s wife Katie (played by Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with the handsome but idiotic Mark (George Clooney). On the advice of her divorce lawyer, Katie secretly downloads copies of all of Osborne’s records, including his memoirs. Katie gives the disc to her lawyer’s secretary. The secretary then proceeds to accidentally leave the disc at Hardbodies Gym.
This is where things, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, start to get complicated. Two trainers at the gym — Linda (Frances McDormand) and her fitness obsessed friend Chad (a hilarious Brad Pitt) — find the disc and mistake Osborne’s very mundane files for national security secrets. Linda, who is obsessed with raising enough money to get a boob job, convinces Chad that they should blackmail Osborne and demand that he pay them before they return his disc. Osborne, who has no idea that Katie copied his records, refuses to pay so Linda takes the disc to the Russians. This leads to a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead to several murders, all of which have to be covered up by the CIA, despite the fact that both the director of the CIA and his assistant agree that there’s no way to understand how any of this happened and that, in the end, neither one of them has learned anything from the experience.
Perhaps because it was released between the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man, many critics tend to dismiss Burn After Reading as just being an enjoyable lark and nothing more. While it’s true that there’s not a lot going on underneath the surface of Burn After Reading, the surface itself is so fun, vivid, and vibrant that it seems rather petty to complain. Burn After Reading finds the Coen Brothers at their most playful and snarky.
The Coen Brothers have made films in several different genres and styles but all of their work has one thing in common. The Coens tell stories about obsessive characters who aren’t anywhere close to being as smart as they think they are. When critics complain that the Coens tend to view their characters with a rather condescending attitude, they’re usually talking about films like Burn After Reading. Fortunately, in the case of Burn After Reading, the Coens assembled one of their strongest casts. From the insanely focused Frances McDormand to the perpetually smiling Brad Pitt to cynical John Malkovich, everyone does such a great job that you can overlook the fact that they’re all essentially playing idiots. Perhaps the film’s best performance comes from George Clooney who, in the role of Harry, proves himself to be a very good sport by satirizing both his own reputation as a womanizer and his career as an old school movie star. In one of the film’s best moments, Harry, gun drawn, dramatically leaps and then rolls into an empty bedroom. Like almost all of the characters in Burn After Reading, Harry is just a big kid playing action hero and Clooney’s performance here is perfect.
As for Burn After Reading, it may not be perfect but it’s certainly a lot of fun.
Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia: