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If winning Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards for “No Country for Old Men” made Joel and Ethan Coen anxious about producing a worthy follow-up, you wouldn’t know it. Their latest effort, “Burn After Reading,” does not attempt to surpass their previous films, nor does it depart radically from their filmmaking style. Like many Coen brothers’ movies, it features a roster of oddball characters, an outlandish conspiracy, and a considerable amount of dramatic irony. Unfortunately, “Burn After Reading” lacks the inspired characters and dramatic depth that carried their best efforts.
The Coens, who wrote and directed the movie, are prolific filmmakers, producing roughly one film every two to three years since their first collaboration, 1984’s “Blood Simple.” After building a reputation with critical successes such as “Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” it’s no wonder that “Burn After Reading” features an impressive cast, including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel.
Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, a CIA agent who, after being unceremoniously fired from his job, decides to write a memoir. Swinton plays his callous wife, Katie Cox, who is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer, a married, womanizing federal marshal played by George Clooney. A disc containing Osbourne’s memoir notes soon finds its way into the hands of two Hardbodies gym employees, Linda Litzke (McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Pitt). Linda, desperate for life-changing plastic surgery, masterminds a plan to sell the worthless information to the Russians and enlists the help of dimwitted Chad.
The scheme soon spirals out of control, resulting in tragedy. The humor of the film is derived from the irony of the plot; the characters think they are in control, but they most certainly are not. This is a familiar Coen brothers trope, explored in numerous films such as “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski.” What makes those films successful, however, is the skilful juxtaposition between a fatalistic plot and wonderfully imaginative, fully conceived characters—the latter of which “Burn After Reading” unfortunately lacks.
The characters are indeed idiosyncratic and neurotic. Linda’s obsession with “reinventing” herself, Harry’s food allergy anxieties, and Ozzy’s pronunciation of “memoir” (mem-WAH) are omnipresent. But this does not mean that they are complex. Even McDormand and Swinton, two exceptional actors capable of coaxing humanity out of the crudest roles, portray flat characters.
McDormand does all she can with the material at hand, but Linda seems under-developed. Like most of the characters, she often evokes our pity, but never our compassion. Chad, on the other hand, endears with a doltish charm that embraces the gym rat stereotype. He is a caricature that Pitt obviously delights in playing, but the other cast members labor to find substance where not much exists.
The film’s light tone makes the absurd plot seem harmless enough—until a single violent scene ups the stakes of the entire movie. But rather than using this event as an opportunity to thicken the plot and deepen the intrigue, the Coens carry on at the same pitch as before. As a result, the audience is left with a mild sense of shock, rather than horror, when the body count reaches a staggering climax.
Stylistically, “Burn After Reading” adheres to the Coens’ aesthetic of long, panning shots that span the length of entire scenes. But “Burn After Reading,” which takes place in and around Washington, D.C., forces the brothers to deal more with interior spaces like homes, offices, and gyms. Gone are the striking rural panoramas from “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men”; in their place are indoor shots of Langley’s labyrinthine hallways and the Russian embassy. Although the D.C. landscape is not a strange or mysterious place, the Coen brothers manage to turn mundane spaces into curious new territory.
With its peculiar characters and twisting plot, “Burn After Reading” feels like a typical Coen brothers movie. At the same time, it contributes a new genre to their repertoire: the spy movie satire. Although the Coens’ past projects have ranged in type from screwball comedy to noir to westerns, often blurring all three, they have always achieved maximum success when dealing with people on society’s fringes. Their most interesting characters are social misfits like The Dude—the pot-smoking, White Russian-drinking hero of “The Big Lebowski”—rather than rich urbanites like Osbourne and Katie Cox. Joel and Ethan have a lot of love for The Dude, but not so much for the characters in “Burn After Reading”—and it shows.
—Staff writer Claire J. Saffitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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