The Coen Brothers followed up 1996’s Oscar-nominated Fargo with 1998’s The Big Lebowski, which, if I recall correctly, opened to disappointingly muted reviews (Lebowski has since become a huge cult item, and perhaps the directors’ most-recognized work).
They find themselves in a similar situation with Burn After Reading, a goofy spy comedy that has to live up to last year’s Oscar-winning drama No Country for Old Men.
A first viewing of Burn left me with a bad taste in my mouth – there are exactly two likable characters here, and the film treats them horribly – but I warmed up to it greatly on subsequent watches.
Eccentric, smart, and truly funny, in that wink-wink ironic way that the directors’ ended Blood Simple with and have mastered since, the film won’t become as big a cult hit as Lebowski but deserves to be ranked alongside it (and Raising Arizona, and O Brother Where Art Thou?) as the Coens’ best comedies.
Set in Washington, D.C., a complicated story involves recently fired CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who settles down to write his memoirs (Malkovich nails the pronunciation) while on the outs with his wife. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with State Department employee Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), and seeking a divorce from Osbourne.
She expects Harry to leave his wife as well, but Harry doesn’t seem to be so interested in settling down, hooking up with gym employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) through an internet dating site. A diskette containing Osbourne’s memoirs eventually ends up in the hands of goofy, bubblegum-chewing Chad (Brad Pitt), Linda’s co-worker at the gym.
Thinking she can turn these valuable CIA secrets in money for much-desired plastic surgery, she and Brad devise a plan to blackmail Osbourne, under the watchful eye of their manager Ted (Richard Jenkins). They pick up some CIA attention, resulting in two pitch-perfect scenes involving J.K. Simmons as a CIA Superior getting debriefed about this much-ado-about-nothing mess.
The acting in Burn After Reading is terrific across the board, but particularly good are Pitt, in one of his most memorable roles, and Malkovich, as the alcoholic, profanity-spouting ex-CIA officer with a superiority complex.
Carter Burwell contributes a memorable score. The film never quite takes itself seriously, but at the same time manages to be resonant and even a little sad.
I didn’t like the way the directors’ dispatched two of the characters (it’s in that same abrupt, matter-of-fact way that everyone seemed to hate in No Country), but knowing their fates added a little levity to subsequent viewings.