You could divide the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen into two categories: Tragedies and comedies. You could almost adhere to the classic definition of these as well: In tragedies the hero dies; in comedies he lives.
The tragedies are usually pretty apparent up-front: Miller’s Crossing and No Country For Old Men, for example. The movie tips you off pretty quickly as to what kind of movie you’re going to see.
The comedies also come in two different flavors: dark, and extra-dark. The ones that are merely dark would include Raising Arizona (probably the lightest), Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother! Where Art Thou. The extra-dark would include movies like Barton Fink and possibly The Ladykillers. The difference between the dark and the extra-dark is that, probably nobody’s going to die in the former, whereas anyone might die in the latter.
Fargo, for example, would be one of those extra-dark comedy: Marge survives, but anyone else is up for grabs.
The potential “problem” is that you think you’re watching one kind of movie until someone ends up in the woodchipper. Still, if you’re familir with the Coen Bros’ work, you shouldn’t be surprised by any particular surprise. As it were.
Still. I was surprised.
Anyway, Burn After Reading is the story of a personal trainer (Frances McDormand, who proves that just because a director puts his wife in the film doesn’t mean she has to suck) and her dimwitted pal (Brad Pitt, in his best role since Fight Club) who stumble across a CD full of an embittered ex-intelligence agent’s memoirs and personal financial information. Said agent (John Malkovich) is having trouble with his wife (Tilda Swinton) and so she was collecting the financials in preparation for a divorce.
The agent’s wife, you see, is having an affair with a federal marshall (George Clooney) who’s a narcissitc exercise freak given to trolling the internet for women while lying to his successful children’s author wife (Elizabeth Marvel of “The District”) and having an affair with…France McDormand!
Anyway, Linda and Chad (McDormand and Pitt) figure they can get some money for the CD, which Linda desperately needs to pay for the plastic surgeries she desires. This leads them to blackmail Osborne (Malkovich) and even go to the Russian embassy when he refuses.
The various plot twists and turns remind me a lot of Lebowski and a bit of Blood Simple. Though it’s not as dark (literally) as the latter and it lacks the loveable characters of the former. It is funny–though obviously you have to be appreciative of the Coen sense of humor.
What makes it particularly funny, oddly enough, is agent David Rasche explaining what’s happening to department head J.K. Simmons. You actually feel sorry for these guys trying to figure out what’s going on, especially as they’re trying to work it out from the standpoint of whether this rises to the level of actul espionge.
“What did we learn here?” as Simmons says at the end of the movie.
Good question. Good question indeed.
One thing that cannot be denied is the quality of performance of the cast. McDormand’s shallow self-absorption, Pitt’s energetic idiocy, Clooney’s paranoid sex-addict–actully Clooney could never work for anyone but the Coens again and it’d be okay by me.
Richard Jenkins–probably the only really sympthetic character in the film–is having a good year, with this and The Visitor, and I’m sure Tilda Swinton must be the sweetest woman in the world. (She’s always portrayed as cold and mean to children, sometimes very literally as in Narnia.)
This movie speeds along–actual running time about an hour and a half–and ends almost abruptly, but exactly where it should, and keeps you paying attention and laughing. A nice change from No Country for Old Men.