Movie Review: Burn After Reading (2008)
Burn After Reading is the first of three movies being released this year to focus on the vain, treacherous creatures of Washington, D.C. but unlike the forthcoming films Frost/Nixon and W., the Coen Brothers’ new flick aims not at Presidents and power players, but the little people. Consider the cast of characters: Gym employees, a C.I.A. analyst of unknown clearance, his wife, and the Treasury agent with whom she is having an affair. He, in turn, is married to a authoress who really wants to go to Seattle, but that’s just the lead in to possibly the funniest twenty seconds of the Coen Brother filmography.
Being small, the characters don’t represent the sleaze associated with politics, nor do their lives revolve around the maelstrom that is Washington politics. Take the plight of the gym employees. Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) wants plastic surgery but her HMO won’t cover it. Ted Teffron (Richard Jenkins), the manager of the gym, wants to go out with Linda, but his obvious advances are ignored in favor of a flurry of online matchmaking. Then there is Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Chad, a personal trainer who is always, always bopping along to some nondescript song on his arm-mounted iPod, finds a disc containing personal information belonging to ex-C.I.A. analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich)—finances and a first draft of his memoir—personal information that Feldheimer thinks will be worth money…perhaps enough money to get Linda those surgeries she so desperately craves.
Cox has enough problems on his hands without the interference of the employees of Hardbodies Gym. He’s a misanthropic, happy hour alcoholic who quits his job in a fury after learning that he’s in line for a demotion. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is screwing a treasury agent and is pursuing a divorce. Then Chad cold calls one morning, worrying about the security of his shit. Meanwhile, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney)—Treasury agent, morning runner, hardwood floor connoisseur, and craftsman—racks up the women while his wife is away on a book signing tour. As if his relationship with Katie isn’t enough, he hooks up with Linda through an online service, becoming entangled somehow with the Hardbodies/Cox affair.
Chad and Linda begin to play spy games, planning to give the disc to Cox or the Russians, depending on who pays. Chad continues to dance to his iPod, Linda continues to search for love on the internet, and Osborne continues to watch the clock, waiting for his 5 p.m. drink to roll around. Mrs. Cox continues to consort with the Treasury agent, who continues to note the quality of the floors he steps on. The movie continues on, breaking free of its plot like a football team charging through a sheet of paper.
The Coens have created a movie that twists, turns, and overlaps so many times that the characters within it appear to be lost. “Get back to me when this makes sense,” the C.I.A. director says. Nobody’s thinking on the case becomes any clearer. Chad and Linda are clueless, Osborne pissed off, Katie Cox is cold and distant, Harry builds his fantastic machine, and poor Ted pines away for Linda.
The movie seems destined to become a cult affair, much like The Big Lebowski. The packed theater I saw this in was full of old people, drawn either by No Country for Old Men or George Clooney, and they were less than impressed. Every time I laughed, I expected to be shushed. The humor that the Coens throw at the audience is likely to go over many heads. This comedy is geared towards the screwball sect to which I belong.
Burn After Reading succeeds on the merits of its dialog and the actors delivering it. There’s not a single weak, boring moment, no opportunity for comedy lost. I laughed just as hard at a picture of Putin on the wall of the Russian Embassy as I did at Harry’s ultimate unraveling at the end. It’s been awhile since paranoia was conveyed so well in a movie, and Clooney is just fantastic as his character falls apart at the seams.
Also, J.K. Simmons is scene stealing as the C.I.A. director. Between his two scenes here and the Spider-Man movies, I’m begging for Marvel Films to go out on a limb and do a J. Jonah Jameson feature. A pilot, at the very least. More roles for J.K. Simmons? The world demands it.
Burn After Reading. Directed by the Coen Brothers. With George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), John Malkovich (Osbourne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Richard Jenkins (Ted), and J.K. Simmons (CIA Superior). Released September 12, 2008, by Focus Features.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.