>The Coen Brothers take a sharp left turn from their previous film, the Oscar winning masterpiece No Country for Old Men with Burn After Reading, a cynical comedy of errors set in America’s political capital, Washington DC.
The farcical proceedings are set in motion with the discovery of a disk in a gym locker room containing the memoirs of a former CIA analyst by the name of Osborne Cox (played with delicious pomposity by John Malkovich) by two clueless employees of a fitness establishment called Hardbodies, Linda (Frances Mc Dormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt).
Believing the disk to contain sensitive government information attempt to blackmail Cox so Linda, can pay for expensive plastic surgery. In a parallel plot line Cox’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a smooth womaniser who is still married and also cruises the local singles scene.
What follows is a dark farce of paranoia, mistaken identity and idiocy all set in motion by Mc Dormand and her characters selfishness. As things spiral out of control, two omnipotent CIA agents played with deadpan relish by David Rasche and JK Simmons intermittently pass comment on events and vainly try to make sense of the escalating mess.
Burn is a curious film. Its seemingly inconsequential and ends almost without warning with all of the leading actors playing their characters as slightly heightened caricatures. But the film is told and shot in a fairly linear and straight style by cinematographer Emanuel Lebezki with very little evidence of the typically kinetic visual style shown by the Coen’s in previous works save for the Gods-Eye POV shots which bookend the movie.
Also, Carter Burwells menacing score which seems more suited to a thriller provides an interesting counterpoint to the seemingly idiotic and shallow exploits being presented to us. All of this suggests that the Coen’s may be trying to misdirect the audience.
If what the Coen’s are trying to achieve here is not quite clear if nothing else, they do manage to deliver on the comedic angle of the film even if the laughs stick in the throat somewhat.
A scene in which Chad and then Linda try to blackmail Cox over the phone is a perfect example of what the Coen’s do best which is placing naive opportunists into a situation where they are completely out of their depth and then watching them squirm.
Pitt plays gym rat Chad as a winning mixture of eagerness and dumb lovability and in this scene adopts an absurd tone of voice that is meant to communicate authority and an air of mystery but which just enrages the irritable Cox even more. Mc Dormand’s character who has been listening in on another phone tries to intervene and take control of the situation which just enrages Malkovich even further to the pint where he threatens them and hurls expletives with relish referring to them as ‘f**king clowns’ and ‘morons’. By the end of the scene, despite their inept handling of the situation both Linda and Chad’s blithe positivity are convinced that they have the situation under control.
In his third collaboration with the Coen’s, Clooney again again shows his willingness to play the fool in his portrayal of Pfarrer who’s charming facade hides his barely contained vanity and sexual insecurity. In his easy conquests of desperate single women (including Mc Dormand’s Linda), he displays an easy confidence and sleazy charm but when surrounded by powerful, take charge women such Swinton’s Katie and his author wife, he is desperate, needy and indecisive. Pfarrer is semi-retired so fills his time with up Internet dating and has taken to building a mysterious contraption in his basement.
Mc Dormand as usual is a joy as a dissatisfied, lonely forty something completely oblivious to the mayhem she creates and to the attentions of her besotted gym manager Ted (the reliably brilliant Richard Jenkins) managing to convey Linda’s inner feelings through body language.
Contrasting scenes in which she first goes on a cinema date with a humourless government official and then on a date with Harry show Mc Dormand revealing hidden depths to the character. On both dates, she is taken to see an innocuous romantic comedy. She munches on her popcorn, laughs uproariously and then sneaks a quick look sideways to see if her date is laughing along. On the first date, the guy remains straight-faced and she is visibly hurt and disappointed.
But then on her date with Clooney’s character , she looks over and he cracks up, the look of delight in her eyes unmistakable. Moments like these counteract the argument and the general consensus that the Coen’s tend to look down on their characters and also clearly show that they should use Mc Dormand far more often in their movies.
As Osborne’s haughty wife, Swinton is iciness personified as Osborne’s soon to be estranged wife. Although it’s a supporting role, her characters actions are crucial to the story and she nails her characters severity with just a few withering glances.
So where does this film fit into the Coen’s back catalogue? Its not as cartoon like as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski nor is it as dark or fatalistic as Fargo or Blood Simple. It occupies a kind of middle ground between the latter and former. A few critics have already dismissed it as too broad and a trifle in comparison to the the apocalyptic dread of their previous film. This may be a conscious decision on their part but this is a deceptively throwaway piece which has dark, emotional undercurrents.
In fact as much as it appears at times to be about nothing so much as an exercise in craft, it also appears upon reflection to be about people of a certain age in the modern world unhappy with their lot and how their search for love is doomed by their inability to communicate intelligently and to see what they have of value is right in front of them.
An existential comedy thriller about middle age ennui or maybe its just a coarse, violent and occasionally laugh out loud farce about a gang of idiots?