Burn After Reading (2008) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt
“Burn After Reading” is definitely a lesser Coens’ film - a slapdash effort of haphazardly put together scenes and ideas, like a bunch of leftovers from their other films loosely strung together. It’s set-up to be a wonderful comedy of errors, in the tradition of great crime-comedies, “A Fish Called Wanda”, “Ruthless People” or “Midnight Run”, but a lack of focus on one character results in an unrealized mess.
Four main characters, each with different agendas provide the anchor-points for this complex cat and mouse spy-comedy. First there’s Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) who’s recently been fired from his job at the CIA. There’s George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer, a Treasury Dept officer who’s sleeping with Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). In order to plot some divorce action against Osborne Katie copies Cox’s personal finance files onto a CD, which she accidently misplaces at a local fitness gym.
Enter Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) two hapless gym employees who find the disc, and thinking it’s secret CIA information, blackmail Cox for $50,000. Harry Pfarrer is also a sex addict and goes on a blind date with Litzke, not knowing she’s involved with the extortion plot against Katie’s husband. The precarious Jenga tower of plotting and scheming eventually tumbles down once the dead bodies pile up.
The fundamental problem is the lack of a clear protagonist. From the opening scene, it appears to be John Malkovich’s character. His opening scene is fantastic, hilarious, as he get politely fired from his job. But then the film is taken over by Frances McDormand. She is also identifiable as a desperate and insecure woman who is unhappy with the body and her social life. George Clooney appears to be acting in a completely different movie. His smug, permanent grin, lifted out of his other so-called ‘idiot films’ “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Intolerable Cruelty” masks the lack of character he’s provided with. We’re never introduced to him properly, never learn about who he is, or what his needs are. We’re just supposed to accept his charm because he’s George Clooney.
Despite the frustrations, the film provided the most gut-busting laughs this year, or even last year, and maybe even the year before. John Malkovich steals the movie. He plays the ‘straight-man’ in the whole affair and the only one who questions the absurd actions of the characters from the audience’s point of view. Malkovich’s banter with Brad Pitt is comic gold. Chad Feldheimer’s hilariously ill-conceived and poorly rehearsed telephone conversation with Cox is perhaps the highlight. Malkovich distributes the f-bombs to Pitt’s naïve Feldheimer with David Mamet-like force. It’s Malkovich’s best performance since “Being John Malkovich” and the scene-stealer of the year.
As if they have run out of ideas, the Coens literally give up at the end, and shut the film down just when it’s getting good. The film leads up to a confrontation or some sort with the main characters, all of whom, unknowingly, are at odds with each other. But the Coens tie the loose ends with a conversation, with the final actions of the lead characters described to us by supporting characters in a hasty denouement.
While I appreciate the quick turnaround in content after “No Country For Old Men”, “Burn After Reading” clearly went into production a draft or two before it should have ( I suspect Pitt and Clooney’s busy schedules likely dictated the greenlight). So I’m torn between the sheer laziness of the Coens with the big laughs which I cannot discount. Malkovich alone is worth the price of admission. Enjoy.
"Burn After Reading" is available on DVD from Alliance Films