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With Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers turn in their most successful satire yet. They have concocted a ridiculous story that works precisely because what's ridiculous about it is perfectly keyed to the foibles of their characters. We are dared to boast that, were we in the position of the deluded gym staff, or the humiliated CIA analyst, or the paranoid "personal protection" professional, we would act with better sense. Not bloody likely. Burn After Reading is a magic-lantern demonstration of the principle that nothing is more intoxicating than wishful thinking.
The Coen Brothers like to laugh at Americans, and they know how to do it better than almost anybody else; but usually they want to do something else as well. Fargo is a very funny movie, at least for a movie that is also fairly desperate. We may not like Jerry Lundegaard, but because the filmmakers have tucked us into his skin, we don't want to see him get too hurt. In contrast, Carter Burwell's portentous score for Burn After Reading freeze-dries our sympathies. When, for example, a certain amiably dopey character is suddenly terminated, some viewers will raise their eyebrows, while others will respond with grateful enthusiasm; but nobody will mourn the poor sap. This isn't a mourning movie.
Burn After Reading is, therefore, not for everyone. It will be dismissed as cold, black humor by people who don't really get it. They won't get it because they wouldn't want to get it — to agree with the Coens that if Americans on the make used to be sinister (Greed), they are now ludicrous. With one exception (played by the soulful Richard Jenkins), everyone in the movie is cheating at something. (You might except the two deliciously clueless CIA men, played by David Rasche and J K Simmons, because, for them, cheating is perfectly legitimate.) But the Coens don't intend to sermonize. They don't want their movie to inspire you to re-think your values. They want you to have fun. And so their plot is a Rube Goldberg contraption constructed of tics and bad judgments. The stupidity on display — whether idiot's logic or exaggerated self-esteem — is comic in the liveliest sense.
Consider Linda Litzke, a middle-aged woman who has a job at a place called Hardbodies Gym. Surrounded by the fab physiques of the gym's patrons, Linda has talked herself into deserving a series of cosmetic improvements — "my surgeries," she calls them, always in the plural, almost as if they were her babies — that will win her the attention of a fantastic guy, someone like George Clooney, say. Linda's sense of divine entitlement to procedures not covered by her health plan infects her with a kind of dementia; it makes her, among other things, an expert in the traffic of espionage. Swinging from one false conclusion to another, like some Tarzan on smart pills, Linda throws herself at dangers of which she remains sublimely unaware. Her sheer vivacity is proof against any idea that the movie's outlook is hopeless. Linda doesn't speak hopeless.
Playing Linda, Frances McDormand does things that I've never seen her do before. She can play very bright characters easily enough, but her specialty is perseverance: a hedgehog with only one idea, she will take that idea to its conclusion no matter what. (It's as though Isaiah Berlin were thinking of Marge Gunderson.) Linda is persevering, all right, but she has more ideas than the wildest and craziest fox. There are moments when all one can think of Daffy Duck in manic mode, all squawks and exophthalmia. Mr Clooney also dances some new steps, especially a dance number that I would call "Colin Ferrell's Even Stupider Brother." As Everett, in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Mr Clooney played a fast-talker as blessed by fortune as his model, Odysseus; as Harry Pfarrer, in Burn After Reading, his fast talk takes the place of the downward disasterward gaze that bemuses Wile E Coyote every time he runs off a cliff. It is just plain fun to watch Ms McDormand and Mr Clooney play characters saddled with spectacularly exaggerated notions of their own intelligence.
Then there is Brad Pitt. I don't know what the opposite of a "critical darling" is, but that would be the term for Mr Pitt. Having assiduously avoided most of his recent pictures, however, I have nothing to forgive; watching his character, Chad Feldheimer, boogie through life is not rendered irritating by unpleasant memories of the actor's press coverage as a new father. Chad, too, thinks of himself as much smarter than he is, but unlike Linda and Harry he has no sense whatever of the wider world outside himself: knowing what he knows ipso facto qualifies him for a McArthur grant. To watch him narrow his eyes and purse his lips, like a very bad Method actor trying to enter into a part — the part of a blackmailer — just before the already famous moment when his intended victim, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) cleans his clock instead — is to enjoy an intense cinematic pleasure. If it weren't done so well, it would be mugging, but what Mr Pitt delivers is nothing less than the exact nitwittiness of Chad's cerebrations.
The remaining two of the five principals present fewer surprises, but that's probably just as well — how much new-and-different can one take? John Malkovich unleashes Osborne's breathtaking contempt for fellow mortals, but, just in case we're inclined to agree with him, he is also magnificently fatuous at playing someone who thinks that he has a book in him somewhere (and that his memoirs will be such a publishing success that he won't have to work). Tilda Swinton, as his wife, Katie, plays her part as a sort of dry run of the Margaret Thatcher biopic than only she can ever make. She has a terrific scene at her vanity table, her face clotted in cold cream, with lunettes of moisturizer beneath her eyes; as if that weren't enough, she produces the most ghastly giggle of the year.
Satire, like farce, requires speed and agility. The Coen Brothers and their sensational cast dash through the steeplechase of Burn After Reading with a whiz-bang grace that's as American as the movie's target. Memorize and swallow! (September 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press