It doesn’t make a lot of sense to follow up a movie as dark as “No Country for Old Men” with one as downright silly as “Burn After Reading,” which is why it works for the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan have done this before — they made “Raising Arizona” after “Blood Simple”; “The Big Lebowski” followed “Fargo” — and if there’s one thing these brothers savor, it’s upending their audience’s expectations. The only thing people didn’t like about the almost uniformly beloved “No Country” was the film’s controversial ending and its handling of a sudden off-screen death of one of the main characters. In “Burn After Reading,” they push it farther, refusing to show you the chain of events that set the film’s entire blackmail plot into motion.
They’re not just messing with you; by taking their last film’s most significant criticism and making it even more noticeable, they’re also making fun of themselves, and that idea of self-parody reverberates through every frame of their latest movie. This is a spy picture in which nobody does any actual spying (at least not for the government; plenty of people are snooping around on their spouses) and where the intelligence community is portrayed as a world inhabited wholly by people without intelligence. Just about everybody whose name appears on the poster is skewering their onscreen persona, the most obvious being the picture’s two biggest stars, George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
Pitt actually has a small supporting role. When his name shows up in the credits, it reads “And Brad Pitt.” The very notion that any movie might have such an important cast that one of the world’s biggest movie stars would get tossed in as an afterthought seems like a joke in and of itself. He plays Chad Feldheimer, a personal trainer that’s the very antithesis of the characters Pitt typically plays onscreen not the slightest bit cool or suave, with no sense of personal style, nor even a whiff of intelligence, and a truly obnoxious haircut. Chad works at a Hardbodies gym in Washington D.C., where he finds a CD full of “intelligence shit” in the women’s locker room and starts dreaming of a big finder’s fee. The top-billed Clooney plays Harry Pfarrer, a philandering U.S. marshal swept up completely by accident into the world of espionage. When you see the movie, you may note that Clooney, sporting a thick beard, looks very much like Bob Barnes, the CIA agent he played in “Syriana,” a very serious spy movie. That surely is no accident.
Pfarrer is involved in two affairs at the film’s outset: one with Katie (Tilda Swinton), the wife of CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, the cast’s true standout), who loses his classified information-laden memoirs, and Linda (Frances McDormand), the plastic surgery-obsessed Hardbodies employee who recovers them along with Chad. (We never do see the disc being lost or recovered.) Linda and Chad want to blackmail Cox but they’re not exactly the sharpest crayons in the box. And despite his bowties and his drunken behavior and the ridiculous way he pronounces the word “chÃ¨vre,” Cox isn’t a pushover.
I like that the Coens don’t take themselves seriously. They made a serious, brutal movie and didn’t feel like making another one just yet. Winning a Best Picture Oscar has gone to the heads of many filmmakers, but that’s clearly not the case here; this is one of their zaniest, most immature films in the best possible way. There’s a looseness to their work in “Burn After Reading,” and with it comes a sense of unpredictability as well, and if a comedy is going to work, it had better catch us by surprise.
And yet the movie does have some things on its mind behind cracking jokes. The “Enemy of the State” knockoff credits sequence, where the camera gives us a spy satellite view of the earth and slowly zooms in until it’s at ground level in Langley, Virginia, suggests “Burn After Reading” will be a parody of paranoia thrillers where innocent people are done in by a corrupt and egregiously powerful government. Not so; in fact, in the Coens’ view, humanity is more than capable of destroying themselves without the assistance of power-mad governmental evil (who, in their eyes, are too clueless to pose a real threat). Paranoia is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy; one moment you’re seeing unmarked sedans everywhere, the next you’ve killed someone with that firearm you swore you’d never have to discharge on the job.
McDormand’s character Linda has the most important lines in the movie. “I’m reinventing myself,” she says. “I’ve gone just as far as I can go with this body!” (Linda, who works in a gym, never even considers the idea that she could work out to improve her figure). Like a lot of people in this country, Linda and the rest of the characters of “Burn After Reading” are plagued with the disease of free-floating dissatisfaction: they’re not happy in their lives and they’re constantly searching for that one missing thing whether it’s sex or a new job or a facelift they think will magically solve everything. The movie really nails that vibe and why shouldn’t it? Who knows the art of reinvention better than the Coen brothers? They do it to themselves every movie.