The characters in the Coen Brothers’ latest film are, each and every one, mired in delusion, and therein lies the movie’s acidic charm. At a historic juncture when we're all finding ourselves trapped inside a nightmare wrought by someone else’s wishful thinking (of military triumph, bottomless bailouts, the ultimate Mrs. America makeover), the deadly silliness of the Coens’ shipload of fools provides black comedy indeed.
Let's stipulate at the outset that Burn After Reading doesn’t match the exultant wigginess of The Big Lebowski, the dark poetry of No Country for Old Men, or the cold-hearted perfection of Fargo. It’s a lesser work in the Coen canon, a diversion rather than a masterpiece. But it's a neatly crafted, exuberantly mean-spirited little diversion, and what’s not to like about that?
The film takes the clichés of the spy thriller—the step-by-step revelation of an intricate conspiracy, the protagonist matching his pluck and smarts against vastly more powerful enemies—and renders them absurd by replacing the superheros and supervillains of the typical blockbuster with a crew of morally myopic monomaniacs. Each character’s greatest stupidity—the one they share with all of us—is believing that he or she is the star of the story, rather than merely one more dispensable pawn.
We begin with one of those satellite shots of the Earth's surface that the camera swoops down into as the credits roll, until we find ourselves an inch above the marble floor of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A pair of highly polished black wingtips hurriedly click-clicks down the hallway. The game is literally afoot.
The shoes belong to Osbourne Cox, an Agency analyst who’s been summoned to an urgent meeting. But it turns out the get-together is not about a Serbian spy ring or a missing North Korean warhead, but Cox’s alcoholism. Cox, furious, quits and rushes home for a drink. Now he will have time to work on his memoir about life in the CIA, he tells himself, visions of bestseller lists dancing in his head.
Cox is played by John Malkovich as a deliciously Malkovichian boob, a prissy bow-tie-wearing Old Princetonian who insists on giving “memoir” its original French pronunciation and is enraged that the rest of the world keeps failing to endorse his own high opinion of himself. He gets no comfort from his doctor wife (Tilda Swinton, in raging ice-princess mode), who despises him—she’s also sure she’s entitled to more than what she’s getting.
This unfortunate pair find themselves embroiled with a phalanx of other fantasists. There’s Dr. Cox’s married lover, a feckless Treasury agent named Harry (George Clooney) whose compulsive philandering is of a piece with his exercise regimen and his fussiness about lactose—just another form of self-indulgence parading as self-care. There’s Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a gym employee too busy obsessing about plastic surgery and trolling for dates on the Internet to notice the wistful overtures of her boss (Richard Jenkins). And there’s Linda’s co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt), a personal trainer so dim he’s practically anencephalic.
These are cartoons but entirely recognizable ones, caricatures of people we’ve all encountered, or been, at one time or other, viewed without a shred of compassion. Complaining that they’re too broad or one-dimensional misses the point, and the joke. If these characters were more real, the film would be a too tragic to be funny.
When a misplaced computer disk featuring some of Cox’s memoir falls into Linda’s hands, she assumes she has a high-value secret document and can become the kind of undercover wheeler-dealer she’s seen in a million movies, Sarah Palin playing George Smiley. “Just give me 24 hours,” she says at one desperate moment, not because she has any idea what to do, but because that is what people in desperate movie moments always say.
This isn’t Tropic Thunder, but a quieter, more cerebral kind of farce. The wit of each vignette often revolves around some nicely observed bit of idiocy that you sense the Coens have been brooding about for a while: fitness freaks who insist on riding their bike on any and all occasions, surgery gluttons, mysteriously mutable food allergies. The actors abandon their vanity and embrace their characters’ stupidity with gusto. One of the movie’s pleasures is watching how much these accomplished actors enjoy tapping into their inner jerks.
As the situation metastasizes, drawing each of the characters into ever deeper trouble, they all react with their own version of Hollywood nonsense, from Cox's catastrophic machismo to Harry's narcissistic paranoia to Chad's boneheaded derring-do. Cleaning up after their misadventures falls to a couple of intelligence apparatchiks in good suits (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons), who are more cynical than the stooges at the center of the action but almost as clueless.
There are no heroes here, and for the David Denbys of this world—those who can't enjoy a movie unless they're able to transfer a bit of their own amour-propre to at least one of the characters on the screen—that makes Burn After Reading pretty hard to take. Well, this is a Coen movie, and though it's a small one, their characteristic misanthropy is harsher than ever. And why not? As I write, a few weeks before the election, with a shockingly high percentage of the electorate still believing that John McCain deserves to add the White House to his long list of residences, sour laughter at human folly seems like it may be the only sanity we have left.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.