Joel and Ethan Coen are pastiche artists — or, to put it another way, chameleons. Almost all their movies mimic the conventions of a familiar genre, be it noir (Blood Simple), screwball comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy), hillbilly laugh-fest (Raising Arizona), folksy Depression drama (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), gangster flick (Miller’s Crossing) or heist thriller (Fargo). Whatever the material, the Coens add their special signature — deadpan, off-the-wall humor and equally random violence.
Given their catholic tastes, it isn’t surprising to see the brothers move immediately from the elegiac, Oscar-winning drama of No Country for Old Men to a spy spoof that mainly involves famous actors running around acting like idiots. It would be surprising if the result weren’t funny. Burn After Reading is, but anyone expecting a more substantial movie will be disappointed.
The plot unfolds from a scenario familiar enough in Bush’s America: A disgruntled member of the U.S. intelligence community decides to write a tell-all book. But CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) has no political motivations, no particular sense of honor, and perhaps nothing much to reveal. After the brass demote him for his “drinking problem,” he laments to his father, also a former operative, that the agency has become “no mission, all bureaucracy.”
That’s the last time anyone in Burn After Reading mentions missions or ideals. As Osbourne mixes drink after drink, it becomes clear that he’s writing his memoirs (or memwas, as he styles them) out of childish pique. Meanwhile, he remains oblivious to the affair his hard-as-nails wife (Tilda Swinton) is carrying on with a treasury official (George Clooney) who’s married, a sex addict, and packing heat.
One of Clooney’s casual conquests is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), an unhappy D.C. singleton who works at the Hardbodies gym while she concocts a detailed plan to “reinvent” herself with plastic surgery. When, by pure coincidence, a CD containing a chunk of Cox’s memoirs lands in the Hardbodies locker room, Linda thinks her ship has come in. Her HMO won’t pay for the boob job, but maybe the agent will if he really wants his “secret CIA shit” back. With the help of her none-too-bright trainer friend Chad (Brad Pitt), she sets out to blackmail Malkovich.
With the exception of Linda’s timid, lovelorn boss (Richard Jenkins), almost everyone in the film is a selfish little beast, and that’s what makes it funny. The Coens aim their satire not at government intelligence per se, but at all those spy dramas in which agents nobly shoulder aside their personal dramas to face the bad guys like the consummate professionals they are.
When Clooney’s character gets in over his head and starts to unravel, he bellows at McDormand, “Who do you work for?” — just like Jack Bauer on “24” did when he suspected his secret lover of betrayal. But while Jack Bauer always makes the best, most selfless decision — or so we’re led to believe — these characters consistently make the worst, silliest ones. In a world where John McCain publicly identifies himself with a fictional über-patriot, it’s fun to see the clichés turned squarely on their heads.
The all-star cast members deliver mannered, one-note performances, but their notes make good counterpoint. It’s a pleasure, for instance, to watch Clooney’s scruffy, bad-boy hedonist go up against Swinton’s iron Mary Poppins: Both are cast to type, and their hostile coupling isn’t that plausible, but it’s an amusing study in misunderstanding. Likewise, Pitt overplays the fatuousness of taffy-haired, ear-budded Chad, but there’s something indelible about his character. Maybe it’s because, as screenwriters, the Coens capture the stupid things actual stupid people say, rather than relying on slapstick to convey tomfoolery.
As Oscar season creeps up on us, so do “important” movies. This isn’t one. It doesn’t flesh out its characters, it lacks anything resembling a proper final act, and the closest it comes to the ponderous darkness of No Country is when the Coens kill off the characters who least deserve it (another trademark of theirs). Forget After Watching might be a more appropriate title, but it’s a gas while it lasts.