As Osborne Cox, the Princeton-educated CIA spook at the center of Burn After Reading, the veteran John Malkovich perfectly captures the arrogance of a “company” man used to having things his way. His frequent cursing and easy violence evoke uneasiness as well as laughs—uncomfortably close to the truth, one has to think. But I’m afraid his character is the only part of the movie for which this can be said.
Burn After Reading is directing/writing duo Joel and Ethan Coen’s first effort after No Country for Old Men, which cleaned up at last year’s Oscars. While the brothers’ move from dark thriller to dark comedy is understandable, it could have been smoother. Whereas the bits of humor in No Country gave that somber film an extra edge, the bloody bits of Burn just make you feel like a bit of a psychopath for laughing at them.
The story begins with Osborne being unceremoniously dumped from his position as a signals intelligence analyst for the CIA. His cold, social-climbing wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), isn’t about to be the sole breadwinner for this childless family, so she quickly consults a divorce lawyer, who advises her to secretly make copies of Osborne’s financial records. Katie is a generally competent person, equipped with equal degrees of calm and cunning—an impeccably groomed pediatrician who manages to carry off a secret affair with a married friend, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).
But she makes one mistake. At least some of the information she covertly copies from Osborne’s computer is part of his CIA memoirs instead of the bank information she’s after. Through an unlikely coincidence, the disk with the memoirs and the bank records ends up on the locker-room floor of a gym, where it is recovered by Chad and Linda (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand), two hapless gym employees who hope to use the discovery to make themselves some extra cash. Despite the best efforts of a senior CIA officer (David Rasche) to keep tabs on the characters’ absurd actions, lives are lost.
Improbable without rising quite to the level of farce, Burn is an entertaining diversion that seems to want to expose the vices of contemporary D.C. society, but it’s held back by its failure to be either realistic enough for successful drama or crazy enough for successful parody. The movie’s title implies a juicy secret, information so crucial and confidential that every precaution must be taken to guard it, but we never learn the details of Osborne’s revelations.
The script generates laughs when Pitt’s Chad describes the intelligence he’s stumbled upon as “top secret sensitive shit”—what an amusingly and naively vague way to talk about something so important. Only how can we believe it is important when the higher-ups at the CIA don’t seem concerned about its dissemination, the Russians dismiss it as “drivel”, and the writers don’t think it’s worth sharing with the audience? Perhaps the SIGINT really is meaningless—just a typical Coen brothers MacGuffin (a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a mechanical plot device whose details are unimportant) to set the story rolling. But even so, it should seem meaningful in the context of the story. George Lucas said of the MacGuffin that “the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.” I didn’t.
The scenes in which Clooney and McDormand’s characters discover their shared outlook (shallow but genuinely positive) are fun. And Tilda Swinton does a very good Georgetown ice queen, not so far from her White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia movies. It’s perhaps an unfortunate distraction that we know the Coen brothers are capable of so much more.
-Marni Soupcoff is the deputy comment editor of Canada’s National Post.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin