Burn After Reading

WARNING: This review may or may not contain sensitive information. If you want to know absolutely nothing before seeing the film, it is recommended that you do not read this.

Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008

Burn After Reading is the latest film by the Coen Brothers, the two-headed director known to their friends as Joel and Ethan. It’s not an easy one to categorize, other than to say it’s “a Coen Brothers film”. You could say it’s a satirical screwball farce which blends verbal wit, visual gags and moments of genuinely shocking violence. You could say that it’s a high-tech screwball modernization of The Big Sleep, in that it’s difficult to explain but easy to enjoy. The gist of the story is as follows:

CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) furiously quits his job after being handed an unexpected demotion. As revenge for this injustice, he begins writing a salacious memoir. He is unaware that his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair and intends to divorce him. Having been advised to do so by a divorce lawyer, she secretly copies all his personal and financial files to a blank CD. When the lawyer’s forgetful secretary leaves said disc at the gym, it falls into very much the wrong hands. The wrong hands in question are Hardbodies gym employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). They decide to seize the opportunity and attempt to blackmail a deeply confused and increasingly furious Osbourne Cox, assuming that they’ve got their grubby little mitts on “secret CIA shit” and not just the egotistical rantings of a lowly analyst.

Linda hopes to use the blackmail money to pay for cosmetic surgery, having been denied it on the gym’s health plan. She is oblivious to the advances of quiet and gentle Hardbodies manager Ted (Richard Jenkins), preferring to use online dating services to find a man who agrees that her ass could indeed be smaller, but “not in a mean way.” After a series of disappointing dates, she eventually meets the rather handsome and promising Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury agent and former bodyguard with lightning reflexes and a good sense of humour. He does admit that he is married, but he also happens to be the man with whom Katie Cox is conducting her affair.

After a disastrous meeting with Osbourne, Linda and Chad implement “Plan B”, taking the secret disc to the Russian Embassy. This alerts the CIA, and before long everybody is under surveillance from either spies or divorce lawyers. A lethal combination of paranoia and stupidity then wreaks its peculiar havock. You know how you can beat a chess champion by playing so badly that all his finely-honed strategies become utterly useless? Well, you can do the same thing to the CIA. In perhaps the funniest scenes of the film, an anonymous CIA Superior (J. K. Simmons) vainly attempts to make sense of the “intelligence” presented to him. His summary: “Jesus what a clusterfuck.”

It is often said of the Coen Brothers that they don’t care about their characters, don’t even like them. This can certainly be said of Burn After Reading, where each humanoid creature on the screen is a grotesque, vicious caricature. Even the most intelligent ones are merely less stupid than the others, and the plot is indeed a clusterfuck of bewildering proportions. But it’s a clusterfuck (god I love that word) presented with a slick and stylized visual flair, performed with utter conviction and scripted with the kind of attention to detail that much modern dialogue sorely lacks. Each character has their own particular mode of speech, the most distinctive being Harry Pfarrer, a man who constantly muddles terminology. Take for instance the way he refers to a piece of fish, not as seafood or shellfish but “shellfood”.

My head tells me that all the mismatched ingredients work against each other. The audience is brought so effectively into the tension and paranoia of the story that sometimes it’s hard to laugh. We barely have time to reflect on the poignancy of Ted’s yearning for an oblivious Linda before someone is getting shot in the face or attacked with a hatchet. And we barely have time to consider the absurdity of the situation before the file is closed. Yes, my head tells me it’s an awkward patchwork quilt of satire, slapstick, sadness and sadism. But it’s stitched together with flawless direction, well-judged performances and intricate dialogue. There’s always room for such a fine quilt. It really ties the room together.

Four hatchets

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