I’m not particularly a Coen brothers’ fan, but seeing their impressive record of making good films, I have no doubt about their talent. When Burn After Reading came along, since I’m always in the mood for dark comedies, and my sister is a “Mrs. Pitt,” it seemed like the time to pay our reverence to the Coens had arrived.
A down-on-his-luck CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malcolvich) got fired and decided to start writing his memoirs. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) was having an affair with a State Department marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and planning a divorce with Osbourne, and she expected Harry to do the same with his wife. Coincidence would have it that a disc containing Osbourne’s draft fell into the hands of two bumbling employees of a fitness centre: an insecure woman who was desperately seeking plastic surgery to find love (Frances McDormand), and a goofy trainer who was too amiable to understand what was really going on (Brad Pitt). They believed that the disc contained top-secret information and tried to sell it back to Osbourne, who was provoked and not feeling generous. They went to the Russian embassy for more reward, but they were asked to find out more about Osbourne’s secrets. Every seemingly trivial threads converged at Osbourne’s house…
Actually, it’s really no point writing about the plotlines of Burn After Reading. Although one could say that the not-so-secret disc left at the fitness club could be the central point of the whole story, the movie consisted of several storylines focused on different characters, yet they crossed path in unexpected ways leading to hilariously ridiculous situations and tragic but funny results. With many characters sharing equally limited screen time, the viewers can still follow along, feel engaged and expect to be entertained. This is why the Coen brothers’ brilliance is so celebrated in the movie business. They have the ability to present the story in such a way that while you couldn’t help but laugh, while your stomach was turning upside down inside you, because you’re witnessing something horrible. That was how I felt during those 96 minutes in the theatre.
They superb writing and unique imagination is exactly why so many A-list movie stars are eager to sign on to be part of this film, even if it means getting humiliated or showing themselves in a condescending way. George Clooney, the ever charismatic bachelor in real life, was a promiscuous sex devotee in the film, who was actually emotionally weaker than he seems. Brad Pitt donned spiky blond hair and a spunky attitude with goofiness to match. That fact that these two biggest heartthrobs in Hollywood were willing to make big fools of themselves all in good fun spoke volume of their trust in the Coen brothers’ project. It’s fortunate for the movie lovers that McDormand is a frequent presence in the Coens’ films (a benefit of being married to Joel Coen?). She was the brightest star in this star-studded film. She was funny without being foolish. Her quest for youthful beauty made us sympathize with her and want to wake her up to genuine love just beside her at the same time. This also made the ending so much more unsettling.
Some may argue that several actors were typecasted in this film, but they were very comfortable and effective in their respective roles. Tilda Swinton played a character she knows best, a cold, empowered, professional woman who despised her recently unemployed husband. She was the go-to actress for this type of roles. When we saw how she treated Osbourne, we could understand why Harry did not want to commit to a new marriage with her, though he was not the committing type anyways. She is the woman we just love to hate. I always like John Malkovich, in his hot-tempered, sinister charm. Whether he is collected or full of rage, Malkovich conveyed a sense of danger, a loose canon ready to fire at all times. Critics said that he was already calmer in this film, then I could only imagine what his full-scale explosion looked like. J.K. Simmons was also noteworthy, as a tough CIA superior officer. While unaware of the actual incidents taken place beyond the reports he received from his agents, he delivered the best comic relief in this dark comedy. And it worked because he didn’t take himself too seriously.
Yes, Burn After Reading was not to be taken seriously, just like what the actors did to enjoy themselves in “the series of unfortunate events.” However, I was so absorbed in the story, I almost didn’t know to how react when every mishaps linked together and blew up in my face. Some plots were ridiculous or sad, but the movie was unbelievably funny and entertaining. That, my friends, is the dark comedy geniuses at work.
- Frances McDormand earned an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in another Coens’ film, Fargo, which I also recommend.
- All photos © 2008 Focus Features