Burn After Reading
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Produced by Tim Bevan, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Eric Fellner
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovitch, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt
There’s a fine line between cynical black comedy and sociopathy. On one side of it, you can take some pleasure in the misfortune of others, in bursts of shocking violence interspersed with gallows humour. On the other, you hold your dick in your hand while you imagine John Wayne Gacy running amok in a Chuck E. Cheese dressed as Pennywise from It. And the Coen Brothers, clearly, have crossed that line with Burn After Reading.
I’m not necessarily complaining about this, as I’ve certainly been known to bleed on a Hustler magazine or two just to spice up my Friday night. But someone should. The best black comedies have all the ingredients found in this story of two moronic gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), who find a disc containing the memoirs of an ex-CIA analyst: quirkiness, violence, and a sardonic tone. But what’s lacking are the essentials of a great film, namely a connection with the characters, a sense of pathos, and at least some sort of conscience.
When Osbourne Cox, played by John Malcovich, quits his CIA position, he decides to put pen to paper. This is despite the fact that his memoirs would likely contain mostly odes to requisition forms and complaints about his comically overbearing wife, played by a young red-headed boy pretending to be Tilda Swinton. Through the first of an elaborate series of interwoven plot twists, a draft of the memoirs ends up in the locker room of a gym staffed by Linda (McDormand) and Chad (Pitt.) As in most Coen films, things abruptly spiral out of control, until nearly every film convention has slipped in a pool of blood and cracked its skull open on thesis on post-modernism. But unlike their best films, like Blood Simple and Fargo, the Coens don’t really seem to care about the characters that populate Burn After Reading, refusing to allow any of them time to exhibit more than their tics, making the film emotionally impenetrable.
Fortunately, this flaw isn’t enough to sink the film. The performances, with the possible exception of McDormand’s slightly overblown neuroses, are hilarious, particularly George Clooney as a weirdly manic satyr. And two scenes featuring J.K. Simmons as a CIA boss amusingly baffled by the plot twists are as near to perfect comedy as I can imagine. But that line between dark comedy and pedophile clown remains drawn in the sand, with the Coen brothers, temporarily at least, on the wrong side of it.