Burn After Reading
How dark and violent was last year’s Coen Bros. offering No Country for Old Men? Now… imagine that… only funny. And without Tommy Lee Jones. Such is the case of Burn After Reading. It’s dark. It’s violent. It’s hilarious. Really it is. In a year filled with several funny movies, this is another interesting entry into that cannon.
After finding what they believe to be top secret government documents, personal trainers Linda and Chad (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) engage CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) in a blackmailing scheme for the return of said documents. Unbeknownst to Linda, Chad and Osborne, the documents are actualy Osborne’s personal finance records, which his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), had prepared in advance of the divorce papers she is filing. The divorce papers are because she is leaving Osborne for U.S. Marshall Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).
Sound complicated? It’s not, really. The comedy doesn’t draw from how they’re connected, but from that they’re even connected in the first place. Rarely does Brad Pitt take on roles that challenge his comedic prowess, but he was really able to sink his teeth into a role that let him shine. He showed glimpses of timing in the Ocean’s saga and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but this was his moment to prove himself, and prove himself he did. With a cast of great actors playing great characters (including Clooney, Swinton, McDormand and the always fantastic Malkovich), Pitt was truly the one to watch.
The thing about the Coen brothers, and I have yet to decide if this is a good thing or not, is that even when it seems like they’re phoning it in, they’re still a cut above the rest. They’ve been funnier (The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?) and they’ve been darker (Fargo, No Country For Old Men), but even when they’re just so-so (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), they’re still watchable, if for nothing more than the quirkiness of their scripts. They were quirky and bizarre before it was trendy, and continue to transcend the palate of “quirky indie” to always remain a level above everyone else. With stories about wholly unlikeable characters, you find yourself siding with them for some reason or another.
Such is the case with Burn After Reading. It’s a story populated with cheaters, vain people, and all around total assholes. The few “good people” are disregarded by the rest, and Pitt, while generally good, is still an annoying D-bag. But you end up liking them for some reason. Can’t put my finger on it.
When compared to their previous effort, No Country For Old Men, this comes off as an easy follow-up, meant to rest their creative processes, and hopefully prepping for something bigger and better. But I would never decry someone to take an alternate route with a new film. And while we’ve seen similar efforts from the Coens, I don’t feel they’ve ever quite so successfully fused the comedy and the dark. They are filmmakers for which the term “black comedy” was practically invented.