The Coen Brothers are two of the most consistent directors working today, as they are able to take any subject and genre – comedy or drama – and turn it into a masterpiece. They have made some incredibly intense and grandiose films in the past – Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit being prime examples. Yet, they also know how to make a fun little comedy, and that is exhibited perfectly in their follow-up to their Academy Award sweep for No Country for Old Men.
Burn After Reading reminds us why the Coen Brothers are unique and brilliant comedic filmmakers. Never before has a small concept such as a CIA operative’s memoirs being found and extorted been so hilarious. The story is about Osbourne Cox (the always intense John Malkovich), who quits his job at the CIA and decides to write his memoirs. His wife is sleeping with a fellow public serviceman, and to make his life even more difficult, a pair of dim-witted gym trainers discover, by accident, his memoirs on a disk in their gym, and believing it to be classified CIA information, they mount a plan to extort him for money. It is so much more labyrinthine and complex than it sounds, and even more hilarious.
Frances McDormand is an insanely talented actress. Even at her most caustic, she is always likable. Her she plays Linda Litzke, a lovelorn gym manager who is obsessed with the idea of improving her appearance through several cosmetic surgery procedures. It is a gleefully naive performance from the otherwise constantly cerebral and sharp McDormand. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Linda’s co-worker, played by Brad Pitt as we’ve never seen him before. Here he plays Chad, a man whose stupidity cannot be described in words. It is always so much fun to see actors playing against type, and to have Pitt trading in his rugged, charismatic leading man sensibilities and playing a character so incredibly dumb was really a breath of fresh air. Of course, someone else also stole the show constantly throughout the film – the always absolutely brilliant Tilda Swinton, who we have come to know as quite an intense and serious actress, but also an incredibly funny and jovial person. Her role as Malkovich’s coldhearted wife is so funny, and many of the film’s most hilarious moments involve her deadpan expressions or sarcastic delivery of lines. These three performances steal the show from the leads of Malkovich and George Clooney, and the entire ensemble as a whole is absolutely brilliant.
Burn After Reading is the exact definition of a smart comedy – it is almost entirely dialog based, and very dark in its humor. There are no hugely hilarious moments, but through truly genius comic writing and the dedication of the cast to the script and film makes this a truly brilliant film. It is not earth-shattering or groundbreaking, but it is a lot of fun, and for those looking for some relaxing but still smart humor, Burn After Reading is incredible. It is not the Coen Brothers’ best work, but it is so much fun and one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in a while.