Burn After Reading
What will those crazy Coen brothers think of next? After making "No Country for Old Men," a bleak drama in which almost everyone dies, I can see Joel Coen saying to Ethan (or maybe it was the other way round), "Let's make a bleak comedy in which almost everyone dies." "What a great idea!" says Ethan (or Joel). And so they made "Burn After Reading," which is in fact a bleak comedy in which almost everyone dies. And it's hilarious.
I'm going to tell you only the tiniest bit about the film because half the fun is discovering the sly in-jokes and non-sequiturs that litter every moment in the film. But let me at least set the scene, which needless to say is in Washington, D.C.: Frances McDormand hates her body; the fact that she works at Hardbodies, a fitness club, probably has something to do with it. Her problem is that she can't afford the four operations that remaking her body would take. Brad Pitt is also there at Hardbodies as a trainer. One day a CD is discovered on the floor; when Pitt and McDormand put it up on the computer it has many arcane notations and an apparent code on it. This is Washington, after all, so what is it and who does it belong to, and does it contain government secrets? Pitt and McDormand find out and try to blackmail the owner of the CD.
Okay, there you have the setup. In the meantime a CIA agent (John Malkovich) is being fired, his wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with federal marshal George Clooney, McDormand is looking for love on the internet, though it's right at hand if she'd only recognize it, and pretty soon the Russians are involved, the CIA suspects, well, everyone, and before you know it there are bodies dropping all over the place.
Is this the greatest comedy ever? No, not quite, even though my own tastes always run to black comedies. The film seems a little hurried, as though the Coens didn't take it quite seriously enough; and George Clooney, as a sleazy man on the make, plays it just a little off. But not to worry; the rest of the film is fine. The Coens have always done what no one else is doing; think of "Barton Fink," with its apocalyptic ending to what had been just a satire of Hollywood. Or "The Big Lebowski," not my favorite of their films, and yet with the ability to make the bizarre seem like the conventional. And when we think of "Fargo," perhaps their most perfect film as well as the most conventional, we cannot get the image of the wood chipper out of our minds. Where will they go next?