Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins
In the realm of terrific Coen brothers titles, Burn After Reading may be the best. It perfectly sums up the comedic holocaust that engulfs its characters in the end. It not only refers to the cloak-and-dagger plot but to the hilarious near-dismissal of the whole thing by J.K. Simmons’s CIA chief. And it’s also as anachronistic to the digital age as the bumbling gym employees Linda (McDormand) and Chad (Pitt) are to the contemporary state of political affairs. As ruthlessly detailed and resolutely existential as its predecessor, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, the film takes aim at pretention, vanity, and sheer idiocy on its own turf: Washington, D.C.
Even if the Coens never set out to satirize the self-centered power plays of D.C., with that setting they couldn’t have helped it. Malkovich’s unfortunately-named CIA analyst Osbourne Cox sets the tone, all preening pomp souring into self-absorbed despair upon being fired from the agency. His decision to write his memoirs (emphasis on the oir) coincides with his wife Katie’s (Swinton) investigation into his assets in order to initiate divorce proceedings; a mishap at the gym lands Cox’s financial and personal records into the hands of Linda and Chad, who, too narcissistically focused on the physical to worry about the ethical, are bent on blackmail to finance Linda’s plastic surgery. Meanwhile, dumbly suave Treasury agent Harry (Clooney) has been romantically embroiled with both Katie and Linda and responds to what he sees of the building plot with more than a little paranoia. Just as in the best Fritz Lang melodramas (and many of the Coens’ films, for that matter), the overarching plot seems to have a malevolent life of its own yet in reality is motivated by nothing more cosmic than the participants’ collective, sometimes unrelated, human desires.
If there is any kind of conspiracy that fulfills the characters’ various paranoias, it’s the American culture of needless personal gain disguised as deservedly fulfilling a self-image (Harry and Osbourne’s Cold War-era views of themselves as at the center of things) as well as simply charging in when way over one’s head (“I’m just a good Samaritan…” Chad keeps moronically saying when blackmailing Cox). Even poor Ted (Richard Jenkins) has pitifully reinvented himself from a Greek Orthodox priest into a gym manager and deludes himself into pining for the undeserving Linda. That nobody realizes what an insignificantly small fish in a big pond he or she is comes best into focus when neither the Russians nor Americans particularly care about the various schemes. Burn After Reading’s crucial Greek chorus is composed of David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, CIA men struggling to make sense of it all. Their failure to grasp, and ultimate decision to simply scrap all trace of, the seeming randomness of the film’s Rube Goldberg-esque plot machinations sums up the Coens’ unsparing but bleakly affectionate view of human nature. We like to watch and experience life just to see what it does, but when we screw up and want to make sure we don’t screw up again, we’ll be damned if we could tell you what the hell we just did or why.