There are few things more glorious in cinema than the Coen Bros hitting on all cylinders in a comedy. It’s been too long since we’ve had the pleasure of sitting in a theater and having the Coens make us roar with laughter at their acerbic insights into the most petty and stupid aspects of human nature – since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Though?, in fact – and Burn After Reading is a true return to form. Hell, it may blow away the form.
It’s almost certainly the Coens’ most acidic comedy. Always known for laughing at instead of with their characters, the Coens go above and beyond in Burn After Reading, creating a tapestry of idiots and failures, and the few characters who do come across sympathetically get horrifically brutalized in one way or another. This comedy is black as they come, with a serious side of misanthropy. And it’s completely brilliant.
The film takes its time getting started, setting up the web of idiots who will play out one of the more amazing third acts in recent history. But there’s not a wasted moment in the film – everything that is set up in the beginning comes back to play later. The tightness of the script is a marvel, and with that kind of tightness you can get amazing comedic pay-offs; only in a movie as well put together as this would something as simple as George Clooney coming out of a house in a jogging outfit elicit a major laugh. The jokes build slowly, but when they start coming they left me wheezing for breath as the Coens again weaved their deadpan magic in the smallest of ways, never calling attention to punchlines, letting the hilarity work on its own. On top of that I’ll bet that a second viewing reveals hidden joke bombs in the first act that you wouldn’t get until you’ve seen the whole film – it’s just that well structured.
George Clooney more than makes up for Intolerable Cruelty here, and once again Frances McDormand proves her brilliance, but the real MVP might be Brad Pitt, in his first outing with the Coens. His Chad Feldheimer, a completely dim and possibly asexual gym employee, is both frustratingly stupid and loveable at once. Pitt manages to take traits that should be Saturday Night Live skit stale and turn them into not only funny bits, but charming little character moments. Once again it’s surprising; I don’t know what it is about Pitt, but every time he’s really good I find myself sort of shocked, despite being an avowed fan of his work. It’s exactly the opposite of his pal Clooney, from whom you just expect great work.
But I feel unfair singling out just Pitt. The cast is stuffed with terrific actors delivering amazing performances. There’s a whole other movie to be made about JK Simmons and David Rasche at the CIA. John Malkovich proves that smart people can be really dumb as well, giving a venomous performance that is equal parts pathetic and hateful. And Richard Jenkins is almost heart breaking, an incredible feat in a film that seems unwilling to get too close to real emotions. And Tilda Swinton – I don’t want to give anything away in this film (it really has quite a few moments that, if spoiled, would ruin it for you), but the reveal of her career is just an incredible joke. She’s even more of an ice queen here than in Narnia.
In some ways Burn After Reading is a strange mirror of No Country For Old Men. Both films find the Coens at their most cynical, both films feature completely ineffective police/investigative work, and both films have moments of shocking violence that leave audiences reeling (although the Coens give you the violence onscreen here. Mostly. Once again, some characters get their stories – and their lives – wrapped up way off screen). And both films have abrupt endings, although the ending of Burn After Reading – in which everything gets wrapped up and nothing is learned – almost feels like the Coens commenting on the people who hated the end of No Country.
Walking out of Burn After Reading I heard people still laughing after the credits rolled and as they got to their cars. It’s a film that sticks with you, that plays the great bits over and over. I can’t believe that there are any negative reviews for this movie out there; surely anyone who doesn’t like Burn After Reading is getting hung up on the idea of the Coens ‘growing’ after the serious triumph of No Country For Old Men, but who really wants that? Anyway, it isn’t like this film doesn’t show major signs of growth – imagine The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona where almost none of the characters are sympathetic. They’ve grown more curmudgeonly over time!
Lebowski and Arizona are the best points of comparison. Imagine if you will a rollickingly hilarious version of Blood Simple, perhaps. With the one-two punch of No Country and Burn After Reading the Coens have completely erased any fears that The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty may have instilled in us. The game? They don’t just have it, they define it. With Burn After Reading, perhaps their funniest movie ever, they continue to redefine it. Set aside the DVD money now – Burn After Reading is the new Coen Bros classic that you’ll be quoting ad nauseum for the next decade.