This year the Coens opt for lighter fare with the exploits of idiots in Washington, D.C. Though the story of adults way past their prime doing moronic things may almost be as depressing as the ultra-bleak No Country it’s nowhere near as good a film, and it barely reaches the comedic heights of The Big Lebowski. Still, it’s a decent way to see well-respected actors cut loose and act like stupid failures. Everyone is a failure in some manner and it seems only Frances MacDormand is aware of the fact. She’s a depressed gym employee who cruises online dating sites for unsatisfying trysts, desperate to be loved and wanted even though she sees herself as a droopy, undeserving hag. To fix that she wants cosmetic surgery but the money is way out of reach until her fellow employee, Brad Pitt having a ton of fun playing himself, finds a CD containing CIA information. They blackmail former CIA agent John Malkovich with it, take it to the Russian embassy, and get tangled up with bearded ladies man George Clooney. Tilda Swinton also appears as Clooney’s shrill mistress. That woman was born to play icy bitches.
Everyone does well in their parts especially Clooney and Malkovich, who seem to play exaggerated versions of their real-life selves. I thought for sure Brad Pitt would’ve been the runaway favorite based on the goofy trailer but some of his antics fell short, and I wasn’t the only one in the theater to think so. He’d wave his arm and repeat jokes like he was in an Apatow production, stirring no one in the (modest) crowd to laugh, whereas Clooney and Malkovich can just make an over-animated face and I’d snicker. They’re terrific and I missed them each time they were offscreen, and missed them even more when the plot gave them less to do. Eventually Malkovich’s scenes consist of him yelling “fuck” and its variations over and over, and that’s all he has left to do in the movie. Luckily, he’s an artist with that word, used with impact and precision.
Besides the goofy acting the other noteworthy thing about Burn After Reading is the soundtrack. The loud, foreboding music sounds like it was pulled out of Spy Game or Enemy of the State, or any dopey Tony Scott piece. It’s music for a serious movie, which naturally contrasts with what’s actually going on in the movie. The Coens are adept at parody – Lebowski skewers noir detective yarns, Fargo and even No Country are darkly funny – and Burn‘s their latest, a ridiculous stab at the spy/espionage genre. It’s not their best, but it’s not bad either.
It’s certainly better than Ladykillers.