The Crop: Burn After Reading
The Production Company: Working Title Films (Focus Features will distribute in the U.S.)
The Director: Joel Coen
The Producer: Ethan Coen
The Writers: Joel & Ethan
The Actors: George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand.
The Premise: A hubristic, mid-level CIA flunkie hellbent on writing his memoirs to avenge a bureaucratic slight loses a disc filled with potentially sensitive files. When two gym employees find the disc and demand a ransom in exchange for its safe return, they set in motion the single-most inept cloak-and-dagger imbroglio in recorded history.
The Context: The Coen Brothers have been through it. Throughout their eleven-picture career (not counting the as-yet-unseen No Country for Old Men), they’ve been regarded as film school phenoms, smug showoffs, brilliant satirists, commercial sell-outs and flailing has-beens. In the early going, their films had a way of lagging just a year or two behind the national zeitgeist: it took Raising Arizona several years of relentless pay cable rotation to become an American classic, and even longer for Miller’s Crossing to overcome a disastrously negative reception as the opening night selection of the 1990 New York Film Festival. It wasn’t until they favored audiences with an undeniably good-hearted protagonist in Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson that the Coens were able to cast off their undeserved reputation as cold technicians (complaining that Miller’s Crossing was chilly around the heart or "lacked romantic heat" exposed many prominent critics, like The New York Times’ Vincent Canby and Movieline’s Stephen Farber, as shockingly ignorant of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and film noir in general). Four years later, they made their most popular movie to date, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and seemed on the verge of a commercial breakthrough.
For those of us who’d been slugging away in their defense since Blood Simple, this was an unsettling thought – which is why the droll, emotionally understated The Man Who Wasn’t There came as such a relief. But the overwhelming box office failure of that picture begat the Coens’ first unabashed Hollywood movie, Intolerable Cruelty. It was a movie for no one, and was followed up by an even bigger waste of their creative energies, a southern transplant of the classic Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers (recently, and justifiably, referenced by Nick on the 50 Greatest Disappointments list).
Even when the Coens missed the mark a little (as I still feel they did with The Big Lebowski, which is half-classic/half-uninspired lunacy), they always bounced back with their subsequent film. But two stinkers in a row followed by a three-year hiatus? Had someone stolen their bag of "secret shit"?
The Script: Whatever that "secret shit" is, it’s far more valuable than the information stored on CIA drone Osbourne Cox’s computer disc, and, thankfully, it’s now back in the Coens’ possession. Burn After Reading is their most polished script since The Man Who Wasn’t There and their funniest study in petty avarice since Fargo. (I’m tempted to say "funniest script period since Raising Arizona", but their dialogue is so dependent on well-timed delivery that it’s probably best to wait and see what Clooney, Pitt, McDormand and the rest of the cast do with it.) It’s also not so intricately plotted as to frustrate mainstream audiences; if they can keep up with Syriana or The Good Shepherd (or, at least, feel equal enough to the challenge to pay $11.00 to give ‘em a shot), there’s every reason to expect Burn After Reading will become the Coens’ highest grossing movie to date (surpassing the $45 million racked up by O Brother, Where Art Thou?) provided it’s competently marketed by Focus (and provided all of the Coens "secret shit" was returned, since the last two movies were also their least interesting visually).
The script begins with Osbourne Cox getting bumped off "the Balkans desk" for a banal assignment in State due to a drinking problem. After protesting to his superior that he’s been wronged, in trademark Coen argot ("This is political! This is an assault! This is crucifixion!"), Cox quits his job and goes home to drown his outrage. Before he can unwind, however, his wife begins nagging him about picking up "the cheeses" for a cocktail party they’re hosting. Later that evening, we get a fuller glimpse into Cox’s mundane beltway hell, and realize that he’s as big of a prick as the people he despises. We also learn that his wife, Katie, is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer, a federal marshal and first-class perv whose wife is the popular author of children’s books (two sample titles: "Oliver the Cat Who Lives in the Rotunda" and "Point of Order, Oliver"). Harry is also unusually interested in kitchen floor tile.
After setting up Cox’s intention to write a tell-all memoir about his days in the CIA (a notion Katie finds risible), and some other stuff I’ll not reveal in the interest of avoiding spoilers, the Coens abruptly shift the action to a doctor’s office where a middle-aged Linda Litzke is being marked up in anticipation of some extensive plastic surgery to nip and tuck the ravages of age. Her body image issues are exacerbated by her day job: Linda works at a gym called Hardbodies. She’s also single, and experimenting with online dating, which, in one scenario, yields a depressing one-night stand with a wheezing, and married, asthmatic.
When Linda’s employee insurance refuses to cover her elective medical procedures, she tailspins – i.e. until one of her co-workers, Chad, discovers a disc packed with random, seemingly ominous Sigint information. Upon tracing the disc back to Osbourne Cox (via the help of Chad’s techie pal Ernie who "hooks up people’s computers and programs their VCRs ‘n shit"), Linda lobbies her fellow employee to join her in a bit of blackmail which she hopes will help pay for her surgery.
The first problem is that Osbourne has no intention of paying. The second problem begins when Linda decides to pay an impromptu visit to the Russian Embassy. That’s when things really get out of control.
Revealing more would be wrong, but rest assured that the Coens keep all of their various tennis balls aloft and never once falter. Other spots of intrigue involve Harry erecting some kind of sinister contraption in his basement that requires a good deal of metal tubing, Katie’s efforts to commence divorce proceedings, and a runaway box office smash starring Dermot Mulroney and Clair Danes. And you might also not be surprised to learn that the action gets a tad nasty as we near the third act.
Why It Should Be Good: Aside from the Coens phenomenal batting average, there’s the fact that their whimsical misanthropy has found a worthy target in this group of Beltway bureaucrats and commercial gym employees. Every single one of the Coens’ dramatis personae indulge in various facets of disgusting human behavior: there’s lots of greed – economical and emotional – on display; everyone’s on the lookout for their own interests regardless of who gets hurt or killed in the process. And the Washington D.C. setting allows the viewer to work out some longstanding frustration with an unrepentantly venal community that’s been the cause of so many of our country’s ills.
And then there’s the cast. What’s interesting about this is that, aside from Frances McDormand, I’m not sure who’s playing whom. Clooney would work as either Osbourne or Harry, while Pitt would be a natural Chad. If Clooney takes the role of Harry, then I’d love to see J.K. Simmons raging against the world as the volatile Osbourne.
Why It Might Suck: This will be the Coens’ first film without cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s been with the boys since Barton Fink. This means the Coens will just have to make do with that clod Emmanuel Lubezki (who’s every bit as good as Deakins). There’s been talk of Lubezki shooting this movie handheld, which would be a change of aesthetic for the typically measured Coens; personally, I don’t see why you’d go in that direction from the script, but, even after Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, I’ll trust that the Coens know what they’re doing.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: Stuff. I dunno. What upcoming movies are you interested in?