Ethan and Joel Coen (not to be confused with Etan Cohen, cowriter of Tropic Thunder, and Joe Colen, my porn name) put the audience in a privileged position with Burn After Reading. So much so, in fact, we feel that we are in cahoots with the brotherly duo.
This dark comedy oozes tragic irony, which the Sarcasm Society, if they can be believed, defines as the “form of irony [in which] the words and actions of the characters, unbeknownst to them, betray the real situation, which the spectators fully realize.” We know more than the characters and sit uncomfortably at times, and elatedly at others, as bits of information are misunderstood or imperceptibly slip by the characters in an intolerably cruel way.
The plot is not overly complex, but, if you’re a character in the film, what’s happening around you is nothing short of mind-boggling. The misunderstandings run rampant and provide much of the entertainment. Characters misconstrue situation after situation, creating a perfect storm of misinterpretation and bad luck.
Set in an unremarkable-looking Washington, D.C., a CIA analyst, played by John Malkovich, is fired for his alcoholic tendencies. A bit besmirched and congenitally manic (except when he’s passed-out drunk), he begins writing a tell-all memoir. A CD of his memoir, along with some personal financial information, ends up in the hands of some gym employees, played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, and is incorrectly understood to be state secrets in the form of “raw intelligence.” In a scheme to make a quick buck, Pitt and McDormand attempt to blackmail Malkovich. Tilda Swinton gets tangled in the plot playing Malkovich’s cold, punishing wife, who warms up to the lecherous, workout-addicted, unfaithful, paranoid, gun-toting marshal played by George Clooney.
In some ways, Burn After Reading feels familiar. Like Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, this film is a fish-out-of-water story. At times, Clooney seems to be channeling his performance from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and there are a few scenes and shots that could have been plucked from some of their other movies. It would seem that the Coen brothers are being derivative, but does it count if they are lifting from themselves?
Though it may feel like well-worn territory, the Coen brothers have certain themes that continue to fascinate them. Their films exist in a certain kind of world—where reward and punishment are doled out erratically, love is easily and often misplaced, and situations are frequently misread, to devastating effect.
No Country For Old Men this movie is not. Unlike that praiseworthy film-as-craft exercise, Burn After Reading is a return to the Coens’ genre-bending mash-ups of the past, in which they playfully traverse a palette of emotions, characters, and storylines. For this reason, the film is unlikely to receive the same warm praise and accolades and may instead alienate new fans garnered by No Country For Old Men.
You may not see, furthermore, the typical critics’ quotes on the posters: neither a “Uproariously funny. I haven’t laughed this hard since the Academy-Award-nominated Norbit”; nor a “Burn After Reading should have been called Re-See After Seeing because that’s what you’ll want to do after seeing it!” That notwithstanding, we end up in a Coen-esque universe that is, at its best, random and unfair or, worse, controlled by an evil genius or two. Whatever the case, Burn After Reading manages to be funny, touching, and brutal without ever being predictable, despite our privileged position.