Burn After Reading is a film so obvious that it is sly, the kind of comedy that operates on a plane not dissimilar from a hebetative kitchen sink melodrama or nonstop scare-a-minute horror picture. As a comedy, it shares with Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ladykillers the characteristic of having characters that seem to belong to a live action cartoon with over-the-top people doing over-the-top things (unlike Raising Arizona, for instance, which was just about entirely a live action cartoon). What makes Burn After Reading sly, however, is what it means as the newest Coen film, a kind of natural progression made whole from their very first feature film, Blood Simple, to now. In that caliginous Texas noir, Ray and Abby found their own extramarital transgression directly leading to Julian Marty's unleashing of beastly, sweaty malevolence personified by Loren Visser. In Raising Arizona, the proverbial Pandora's box is opened by H.I. and Ed, whose selfishness and egocentricity allow for sheer madness to ensue, the brunt of which is gradually visited upon them. Jerry Lundegaard's inept schemes and delusions of grandeur culminate in nothing but misery, despair and horror for those he thinks he loves, or at least is supposed to; in Fargo, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud represent the untamed id doubtless residing within Jerry. Their evil is not mitigated by Jerry's culpability, but it does comprehensively, and almost mathematically, complement his weasely, rakish desperation and venality. Llewelyn Moss rings the dinner bell for the one-man scourge of peccancy and callousness, Anton Chigurh, when he steps beyond the natural circumscriptions of his ontic life in the Coens' culmination of thematic delving and artistic growth, their Rosetta Stone opus, No Country for Old Men.
What makes Burn After Reading markedly different from these pictures, however, is the utter banality in which the Coens soak their characters. Chad Feldheimer, played with rambunctious frivolity by Brad Pitt, and Linda Litzke, given life by a mopey, self-esteem-starved Frances McDormand, are so base, so moronic that their evil almost goes beyond banality, into a kind of cinematic statement that makes all of those spiritually forlorn guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” seem almost understandable. Which is not to suggest that Chad and Linda are so self-immolating, or perhaps more importantly, so uninteresting as countless people seen on that or other such shows—just that they are in their respective ways as shallow and thickheadedly self-interested as anyone who has ever gone through the Coen universe. And it is, importantly, their misdeed that catapults most of the action of this screwball comedy that hits one like a screwdriver and boundlessly ricochets like a rubber ball.
The Coens have always been pugnacious in their clear disdain for the trappings of acceptance and the possible compromise that that may bring. Frequently labeled as misanthropic or nihilistic by their more passionate or in certain cases malapert detractors, with Burn After Reading they seem more readily accepting of the scorn, creating characters that are so ill-tempered, obnoxious and almost ridiculously harebrained that the picture seems to almost giddily supply those critics with more ammunition with which to fire at the writing-directing brothers. What many of these detractors seem to either ignore or not understand is that the Coens have a singular ability to hypostatize their greatest thematic interests and most vital concerns. The oft-repeated criticism of their characters behaving in ways dictated by the self-evidently deontic philosophical underpinnings of their pictures, enlarged with ornamental idiosyncrasies and often bizarre peculiarities, betrays a basic misreading of their art. No great empathetic author can hate his or her characters, and the Coens display an unabated love for their inventions in all of the cumulatively astonishing, merest detailed etchings that they so magnificently produce.
Men who detested their characters would not allow them to shine as brightly as this, no matter how despicable many of their actions may be. Easily the most tender figure in their latest, the ineffectual but earnestly well-meaning gym manager, Ted Teffron (Richard Jenkins), stands out as a counter-persona to the multiple ciphers like Chad, Linda and most resoundingly George Clooney's pathological tomcat, Harry Pfarrer. His bitterly sad unrequited love for Linda is nothing short of heartbreaking, made all the more dissatisfying in its futility when the purblind Linda remains completely oblivious to his comments. A woman determined to superficially improve her body through multiple surgeries, her desire to extract a princely sum through blackmailing a former CIA agent named Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is heightened by the unnecessary “need” for surgery money.
Malkovich's performance is perfectly in his wheelhouse. His incendiary temperament, caked over by a vicious, imposing demeanor, recalls past Malkovich turns, but he's so naturally efficacious in the role that one becomes almost wholly appreciative of the veteran actor's efforts. He plays Osbourne as the smartest and most justifiably self-righteous disgruntled CIA man. He's arrogant and angry, a once-dutiful soldier whose exhaustion in the face of profluent inanity, which by its nature swallows him whole, leaving him with the half-delusional ambition to work on his memoirs. His is a more sensible character arc, and its stinging keenness along with the frigid and domineering iciness of his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), stands as a faintly realistic counterpoint to the more unintentionally cutting attributes of the other characters. One of his most puissant lines comes in his first scene as he receives awful news. Told by a colleague that he suffers from a drinking problem, he turns the tables: “Fuck you, Peck, you're a Mormon, next to you we all have a drinking problem.” Note the greater emphasis, capsulized by this one line, made broad—in many ways, both thematically and stylistically with characterization—on “we all have a... problem...” It's an excellent forewarning that this is the most pervasively quotidian examination of the intricacies of a fallen world the brothers have offered—the bare quintessence of their cinema—and as such, in many ways, the most bleak and depressing.
Where Burn After Reading may not optimally succeed is, interestingly, in its comic aspirations. Asseverating a certain free-wheeling cinematic demeanor, this is a film that truly takes its time to get rolling, the humor derived as it is from madcap scenarios as anything. By the time Chad meets Osbourne in a car, however, the snowball effect amasses a certain high-pitched funniness, especially as Pitt enjoys his finest scene, playing a dummy trying to act a specific part. The Coens' greatest weakness may be their comic broadness, their at times gleefully, ebulliently peerless ability to twist just about line, word, physical appearance into something distinctly funny (Chad's spiky, frosted hair; Harry's... harry beard; Osbourne's round, shiny egghead perfectly capturing the man's supposed sagacity), their precocious but occasionally far-out preciousness (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were most negatively impacted by this trait). There are many wonderful, over-the-top sequences and outrageous character back-stories and oddities in films ranging from Raising Arizona to Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski to No Country for Old Men. Much of the incongruence of Burn After Reading's humor may stem from its lack of transparent beckoning for laughs. Carter Burwell's score is somberly suspenseful, like a standard spy thriller, never issuing a single comic note. Emmanuel Ubezki's crisp, autumnal cinematography is likewise muted and tinged with chilly darkness. Joel and Ethan Coen allow the situations and characters to provoke the laughs.
J.K. Simmons plays an unnamed CIA supervisor who, with another analyst of the agency, represents a kind of chorus, remarking on the insanity and insensibility of the twisting, surprisingly complex and multi-threaded story, which coils around itself. Simmons' character has no idea what is going on, and that is one of the points. The Coens give Linda and Chad the opportunity to inspire hellfire with their wanton disregard for their own actions. By the time the film is finished, the picture makes less sense than ever. All that is certain is bad choices have been repaid with merciless karmic “justice,” the meaning of which finds the loosest possible definition here. Doomed cash-grabs are an essential ingredient to the Coens' tales of this fallen world lending a stage to the darkness enveloping the light. This is where satire and reality meet, and the meaning of the former becomes hazily vague. Simmons' final words seem like they could be truly uttered by a real-world spook. In its own way, Burn After Reading's coda leaves a grim punctuation not unlike No Country for Old Men's. The steely-eyed Gaear Grimsrud was unresponsive to Marge's words—“...for a little bit of money...”—and that, again and again, the Coens instruct, is the point. There are those who do what they do, and those who may oppose them, or at least fall victim to them, and, as the Coens conclude this black comedy, a dominant patina overtakes the audience's gaze. It may be funny in its own way, but it is also a note of almost cannibalistic apocalypse. There are fewer and fewer innocents to be found, and the guilty are more obtuse and foolish than ever.