It seems as though, following the twin misfires of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, fresh offerings from the Coen brothers will always be treated with a degree of suspicion. Indeed, some quarters, convinced of the duo’s decline, are already proclaiming Burn After Reading their worst film since the latter, a statement which, in literal terms means “it’s not as good as No Country for Old Men.”
What many of the Coens’ detractors fail to note, however, is that their filmography is so diverse and steeped in genre exercises that often the weaknesses and limitations of their outputs reflect those of their genre as a whole. This is certainly true of Burn After Reading, which, while finding the brothers’ creative partnership in good health, is far from essential.
Set in Washington DC, the film revolves around the efforts of ‘Hardbodies’ gym employees Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, as they attempt to blackmail John Malkovich’s disillusioned government insider. The pair, infused with a high-energy ‘can do’ attitude, soon find themselves out of their depth in typical Coen fashion, as events hurtle out of control with almost hilarious consequences.
Much has been made of Burn After Reading’s all-star ensemble cast and, admittedly, it does seem an odd decision for the filmmakers to employ such terminally unhip A-listers as George Clooney and Pitt, while they struggle to renew their hard-won Indie credibility. Furthermore, the notion of such actors knowingly playing over-the-top roles that mock and contradict their public personas is a sickening one, which, on paper, seems sure to test the good-will of even the most ardent Coen fans.
Happily, the players prove adept at comedic performance, and clearly revel in conveying the idiosyncrasies required of the directors’ creations. Pitt in particular fails to come across as overly annoying, even when playing the role of an idiot.
The project would implode amidst its leads’ gleeful mugging were it not for Malkovich’s intensely ‘straight’ performance serving as a sympathetic anchor for all the zany strands of action that take place. The film is crammed full of infidelities, insecurities, and life-threatening situations, however it is his intensely human presence that lends Burn After Reading a real dimension of darkness, elevating it beyond hugely entertaining fluff, into something considerably more compelling, though hardly mind-blowing.
If the work has a specific ‘message’ then it is that idiocy can, and almost certainly will, have destructive consequences for all concerned, whether the instigator or not. From the outset of the film the audience are conditioned to believe that its characters possess grave secrets. As events unfold, however, it transpires that they have nothing of any consequence to hide, their covert behaviour serving purely to mask for their own inconsequential nothingness and delusions of self-importance.
Burn After Reading may seem an illogical follow up to No Country For Old Men, but if history has taught cinema-goers anything, it is that the Coens will go on to produce more ‘challenging’ material and that we should just enjoy their purely enjoyable films whenever they see fit to produce them.