Let me say right up front that I’ve never been able to properly digest a Coen Brothers movie after just one viewing. So anything I say about this one is probably just half of what I’ll think about it once I know it a little better. And I definitely look forward to knowing it better, so that says something right there.
Following their biggest commercial and critical success, the multiple Oscar-winning, violently bleak No Country For Old Men, the Coens have returned to another of their strengths, screwball comedy. But what struck me most about Burn After Reading is that it is as pessimistic about humanity — if not more so — than No Country.
(Minor spoilers follow, so read at your own risk)
This is a bloody farce that’s half political, half personal and all cynical. Just about every character in the film is lying, cheating or breaking the law in pursuit of some selfish goal or another. The exceptions are Brad Pitt’s personal trainer, who is far too dim a bulb to notice much beyond his immediate surroundings, and Richard Jenkins’ gym manager, who is motivated by simple love. Needless to say, they aren’t rewarded for their innocence.
More than anything, this film is an absolute clinic on great comic acting — it’s the kind of film for which ‘Best Ensemble’ awards are made. Pitt, Jenkins, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton… all deliver first-rate work that will go completely ignored by “serious” critics and award groups.
I’d also like to highlight two performances that particularly stand out even among this group of masters. John Malkovich is pitch-perfect as the vulgar and frenzied Osbourne Cox, a disgruntled former CIA man whose misplaced writings set the plot in motion. It’s the best work he’s done since his genius turn in Being John Malkovich. And J.K. Simmons, recently so wonderful in Juno, practically steals the movie in just two scenes as the CIA director who can’t believe the “clusterfuck” his agency is embroiled in.
Funny, black-hearted and full of surprises, Burn After Reading is another triumph for arguably the best filmmakers working in Hollywood today. It’s not on a level with their very best work (what is, really?) but it’s a more than worthy addition to a brilliant and eclectic filmography.