John Malkovich dictates his ‘memwahs’ in Burn After Reading
They are two brothers who have a knack for combining genres and styles into hybrids that can only be described by using their last name as an adjective. Their films are set in a recognizable approximation of reality, but certain elements have been tweaked and exaggerated. Unexpected oddities are emphasized and repeated as motifs – within movies and between them – like the urgent clomping of footsteps or the climate controlled sigh of a door closing on an empty hallway. Here characters speak in strange, colloquial turns of phrase. Words have a musicality and, though their meanings are frequently mundane, they’re as carefully chosen and as repeatable as a line from Shakespeare.
What do these quirks mean? They’re a signpost that you’ve left the known world behind and you’re now adrift in the uniquely skewed universe of Joel and Ethan Coen.
Though their latest film, Burn After Reading, is set in Washington, D.C., it is also clearly rooted in this strange Coen-verse. It’s part spy story and part blackmail caper with elements of bedroom farce sprinkled in. Above all though, it’s a welcome return to comedy and easily the brothers’ most consistently funny effort since The Big Lebowski. Like all Coen films however, the normal rules of funny don’t apply. Here the humor comes not from jokes with punch lines and turns of plot, but through details and dialogue and character interactions.
Though there is plot to spare, this is probably the Coen’s most carefree tale. It is disciplined in that it doesn’t go off on some of the tangents the brothers seem to find so amusing, but it’s also almost entirely irrelevant. It involves a Macguffin (one with its own special ironies), but the story is itself a kind of Macguffin. It’s mainly a thin excuse to set the talented ensemble cast of disparate characters on a collision course. The comedy is in the conflict and how the characters are related is less important than the funny ways they interact.
Like the characters in nearly every other Coen film, those in Burn After Reading are united in not being nearly as clever as they think they are. In the blunt parlance of one Walter Sobchak, “They’re out of their fucking element.”
The first one we meet is John Malkovich as the amusingly abrasive CIA analyst Osborne Cox. He’s the smartest guy in the room and utterly exasperated by the rampant stupidity all around him. The Coens often use curse words like notes in a symphony and Malkovich capably upholds their tradition of amusingly slinging f-bombs.
Tilda Swinton is Cox’s bitchy and uptight wife, Katie. She’s the least memorable character of the bunch, but Swinton makes the most of it, lending Katie a suitably British upper-class brittleness.
George Clooney plays the affable, amorous and mostly clueless US Treasury marshal Harry Pfarrer. His obsession with sex is matched only by his fascination for attractive flooring. In both O Brother Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, Clooney tore into his roles with admirable gusto, particularly for a major celebrity and international sex symbol, but he didn’t quite seem to fit the Coen rhythms. Here he dials his performance down a notch and he feels more relaxed and comfortable.
On the other hand, Frances McDormand edges dangerously close at times to cartoon territory in her role as Linda Litzke, a lonely DC gym employee who dreams of being able to pay for thousands of dollars of plastic surgery so she can attract a better class of men through her online dating service. McDormand has a few moments that are almost as over the top as her performance in Raising Arizona, but fortunately she pulls back each time. Eventually, a genuine pathos emerges in Linda and she’s easier to warm up to.
Best of all is Brad Pitt who nearly steals the show as Linda’s hyperactive co-worker Chad Feldheimer. Sometimes an introverted and low-key performer, here Pitt is all gum-chewing nervous energy. Wearing his frosted duotone hair like a badge of stupidity, he digs into his character with the fearless confidence of someone who either doesn’t know he looks like a moron or doesn’t care. Combining some of the impish vigor of Tyler Durden from Fight Club with the hazy cluelessness of Floyd in True Romance, Pitt is at his most engaged and he’s a lot of fun to watch.
Rounding out the main cast is Richard Jenkins as Ted Treffon, the gym manager who quietly pines for Linda. Ted is one of those guys who has quietly led a life of nervous caution and it’s led him nowhere. Slumped over and wearing the look of a man haunted by a lifetime of failure, he may be the saddest character in the Coen oeuvre, trumping even William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard.
One of my favorite little moments in Burn is a sad one and it belongs to Ted. Having spent the film trying to confess his love for Linda, he’s devastated when she loses her temper with him. After she leaves the room, he makes a short, quick inhalation as though he’s literally swallowing his hopeless misery. It’s as close as he ever comes to breaking into actual tears.
In complete contrast to the cast, the cold look from Emmanuel Ubezki’s slick cinematography combines with the dramatically percussive score by Carter Burwell to lend Burn the surface feel of a straight-faced spy story. Against this earnest tableau, the absurd contortions and flailings of the actors are all the more amusing – especially since no one acts like they know they’re being funny.
Whether the A-list cast is enough to draw a wider audience remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that the peculiar flavor of Coen comedies is an acquired taste. If you haven’t appreciated the humor in their previous efforts, Burn isn’t going to convince you. On the other hand, fans should find plenty laugh about, particularly those who are more comfortable with the Coens as cult favorites than as critical darlings. Though Burn After Reading is unlikely to win any Oscars, it’s a welcome return to the brothers’ simpler roots and, like all their films, should reward repeat viewings. I’m already eager to see it again myself.
Burn After Reading. USA 2008. Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Edited by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (as Roderick Jaynes). Score composed by Carter Burwell. Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons. 1 hour 36 minutes. MPAA rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. 4 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading, Carter Burwell, Emmanuel Lubezki, Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, J.K. Simmons, Joel Coen, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, Roderick Jaynes, The Coen Brothers, Tilda Swinton