In the twisted but strangely sensible logic of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, the perfect way to follow up an intense, brutal, Oscar-winning psychological thriller like No Country for Old Men is with a goofy lark of a comedy like Burn After Reading. While this may seem at first to be a questionable career move, Burn is a perfect palate cleanser following the bleak No Country, and in keeping with the Coens’ other comedies, as darkly cynical and unsentimental as their dramas.
Its madcap tone recalls Coen projects like The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, although it doesn’t reach the heights of sublime absurdity that those movies (especially Lebowski) achieved. It’s also a little disjointed in a tossed-off sort of way that suggests the Coens just wanted to have a little fun before moving on to the next big project. Consequently, there are as many baffling scenes as there are hilarious ones, although the typically dense plot finally comes together in a wonderful final scene that sneaks up on you with its silly poignancy.
Before that, we get John Malkovich as CIA analyst Osborne Cox, quitting in a huff after being demoted thanks to his persistent drinking problem. Like pretty much everyone in the movie, Cox could generously be described as dim-witted, and so embarks on a project to write memoirs that clearly no one will be interested in reading. His cold-fish wife (Tilda Swinton) swipes them as part of her project to initiate divorce proceedings, and soon a disc with theoretically sensitive state secrets ends up on the locker-room floor at a gym employing the vapid, toned Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and the insecure Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Convinced they can somehow use the info to strike it rich, Chad and Linda try blackmailing Cox, and when that doesn’t work they look into selling the disc to the Russians.
Fitting in there somewhere is U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who’s both sleeping with Cox’s wife and trolling the Internet for dates, where he encounters Linda. As in Lebowski, the players all sort of bumble through some grand conspiracy that turns out not to amount to much, although it seems deadly serious to them while it’s happening. Burn lacks the relative warmth of Lebowski, and although Pitt does a great job at making Chad the endearing king of what Cox terms a “league of morons,” even he’s not appealing enough to care much about.
The Coens have always been more about expert craftsmanship than emotional connection, though, and in that sense Burn has a lot going for it. The dialogue is full of excessive, almost luxurious uses of the F-word that take on a nearly lyrical quality; characters use it to punctuate all sorts of sentiments, from surprise to anger to despair. Carter Burwell’s deliberately overwrought score subtly makes fun of the manufactured urgency of spy movies, as does a shot of hard-top shoes clacking purposely down a marble hallway that repeats at the beginning and end of the movie. The Coens claim to have been inspired to make Burn by the Jason Bourne movies, and they certainly deflate the intensity of the spy genre by highlighting just how little every character actually knows.
That clever meta-textual stuff will probably only hit you later, though, and during the movie you may be more frustrated with the uneven pacing, lack of a compelling central character and tonal inconsistency. Burn does a lot for a lark, but a lark it is nonetheless, and perfectly welcome as long as the Coens bring back their ambition next time around.