Counter-intelligent: Burn After Reading ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 20, 2008)

Attention, K Street choppers.

In an inspired bit of dialog from the new Coen brothers film, Burn After Reading that will surely become oft-quoted, ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) goes into an exasperated, paranoiac rant about the “league of morons” in America who have continually conspired to make his life hell. While I was laughing along with everyone else in the audience, part of me was thinking “Well, yeah…I know exactly how you feel.”

 It’s sad. “Stupidity” has become the buzzword in any examination of contemporary American cultural anthropology. It insidiously pervades all aspects of our lives-home life, work life, school life. Television celebrates it-American Idol, America’s Got Talent, American Gladiator, Fox “News”. Preachers and politicians bank on it. As Madge would say, we’re soaking in it. Besides-why crack open a book, when you have text messages to read?

Thank god for the Coen brothers. Perhaps more than any other American filmmakers, they have provided an on-going movie therapy service for those of us who are chronically depressed about the chuckle-headed state of our union. Through films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Fargo, the Coens have milked many a sardonic guffaw from the axiom “stupid is as stupid does”. Those films also serve as reminders that if you are dumb enough to believe that you can find a shortcut to achieving your American Dream at the expense of destroying somebody else’s dreams…without karmic payback, then you are even dumber than originally advertised. Whether or not karmic payback exists outside of a movie universe is up for debate, but the possibility makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Burn After Reading signals a welcome return to the type of dark, absurdist cringe comedy that the Coens truly excel at. The story revolves around the aforementioned Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst who decides to “write his memoirs” after quitting his job in an acrimonious huff. The arrogant, misanthropic Cox is a paper tiger bureaucrat who pompously fancies himself more akin to a Robert Ludlum hero. He is certainly less than a hero to his fed-up, no-nonsense physician wife (Tilda Swinton) who is having a torrid affair with a married, sex-addicted treasury agent (George Clooney).

Following the advice of a divorce attorney, Mrs. Cox surreptitiously downloads information from her husband’s hard drive onto a disc, which ends up (through a typically Coen-esque comedy of errors) in the hands of a pair of dim bulb fitness club employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). Mistaking Cox’s memoir notes as some type of coded high-level state secrets, the would-be criminal masterminds cook up a lame-brained scheme that starts as a simple garden-variety blackmail attempt, but somehow morphs into a grand clusterfuck involving the Russian Embassy and nearly every branch of the Beltway’s clandestine community.

The cougar and the slow man.

If that sounds High Concept…it is. But leave it to the Coens to mash up the elements of screwball comedy, door-slamming bedroom farce, spy spoof, political satire, social commentary and self-parody into a perfect cinematic cocktail. The breezy script (penned by the brothers) is tighter than a one-act play, and capped off with a great zinger. It’s a rarity in film these days: an expedient, highly satisfying denouement. In other words, the film neither overstays its welcome nor feels rushed; it wraps up just when it needs to. Setup. Story. Punchline. Callback. You’ve been a great crowd!

Malkovich is in top form; he is a master of the slow burn that builds into manic apoplexy. He manages to make these fits of rage both extremely menacing and screamingly funny at the same time; it’s an acting tic that rings of vintage Gene Wilder. It’s a cakewalk for McDormand; it goes without saying that her husband and brother-in-law know more than anyone else on the planet how to best utilize her unique instrument. She and Pitt make a great comedic tag team, and it’s easily Pitt’s funniest performance since Snatch.

This is the third outing with the Coens for Clooney, and he appears to have their quirky rhythms down to a science. Swinton seems to have the most thankless role (she’s mostly required to just glower and fume) but it is interesting to see her reunited with her Michael Clayton co-star. Veteran character actors J.K. Simmons and Richard Jenkins round off the fine ensemble cast quite nicely. As a follow-up to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which was a much more somber and thoughtful piece, Burn After Reading may feel like a relatively superfluous toss-off, but it’s a perfect salve for election season weltschmerz. So as your fake physician, I prescribe that you buy two tickets, and call me in the morning.

One thought on “Counter-intelligent: Burn After Reading ***1/2”

  1. I know this is old but I just discovered your site via hullabaloo, and like It very much. Have been reading through many reviews, wish more folk would comment here.

    Anyway, I love the Coen brothers films, but this one took me years to appreciate. I really didn’t think it was that good when I first saw it. But every time it shows up on tv, I find myself unable to go from it, and it has absolutely grown on me.

    Everybody, including “Osbourne Cox? Are you Osbourne Cox?” Cox is stupidly obtuse and none are self aware.
    Pitts character I found funny even the first time I saw it, but without depth…boy was I wrong. Is his simple outlook and he is stupid but one thing I only cought that really had pathos, when Clooneys character opens the closet door on Pitt, there is just the briefest glimpse of Pitt trying to look friendly, it’s hard to describe even but it is amazing…just before Clooney shoots him.

    Absolutely every person in this seem to think they are living out a role in their own film, and they see everyone else as supporting actors or background. I also loved the summary by the cia something like “so this and this happened, and we don’t know why and now it’s all over….what did we learn? Nothing”

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