Burn After Reading would have been more aptly titled Burn After Viewing. Joel and Ethan Coen's newest movie is a departure from last year's heady, gut tightening No Country for Old Men, which took home four of the biggest Oscars, including Best Director and Best Screenplay. Burn After Reading is a spy movie. Burn After Reading is a thriller, and a comedy, and a drama. To tell you the truth, I don't know what the hell Burn After Reading is trying to be. And after an hour and a half sitting in a semi-dark theater, listening to people nervously giggle and chew the insides of their cheeks, it's pretty damn clear that the directors didn't have a clue either.
In a nut shell, the movie simply didn't work for me. It's described as a dark comedy, but it's marketed as a goof ball comedy. Hell, from what I saw in trailers I was expecting something more along the lines of The Big Lebowski. Burn After Reading has the same dispassionate attitude and indifference towards gruesome, pointless murder and death as Fargo, the goof ball humor and unbelievably idiotic characters of Raising Arizona, and the mood and tightness of No Country for Old Men. I thought we were in the wrong movie for about the first ten minutes. The tone and score are, at times, straight out of a spy thriller (think Clear and Present Danger). There are some funny moments in the first half hour of the movie, especially those involving Brad Pitt's hapless character. But then the laughs became more furtive, and then nervous, and finally they stopped. And they were quickly replaced by uncertainty and dread. I had a knot in my stomach by the end of the movie, and even when something funny did happen, I was nervous to laugh at it for fear that I was being set up for an inevitable fall (If you go see the movie, you'll see what I mean. I can't give away everything.)
The plot, in short, follows a few short days (or maybe weeks) in the life of one Osbourne Cox, played by John Malcovich. Osbourne is a CIA analyst who quits his job after being confronted by his boss about his drinking problem. He decides to write an explosive book of memoirs about his time in the agency. But through bad luck or the randomness of the universe, some of his "secret files" end up in the hands of two bungling gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who decide that they can probably coax a reward from Cox as a sort of Good Samaritan award for returning them.
Before it's all said and done the tension is dialed up, randomness occurs, and a few vulgar displays of violence make the few funny moments in the movie seem like the last few deep breaths of a drowning victim.
The movie's only saving grace is the great acting displayed by the entire cast, despite the plot. The obvious stand out for me was John Malcovich, and I really didn't have think a whole lot of him until this performance. I found myself looking forward to his scenes just to see him act. Of course George Clooney was great, McDormand was on top of her game, and Richard Jenkins was a welcome surprise as the gym manager who is hopelessly in love with McDormand's self loathing character.
But still the movie is awkward. It never decides what it's trying to be. The score is ham fisted and out of place. And the violence is unnecessary and obviously thrown in for pure shock value. All of this leaves the viewer wondering if the Coen brothers are taking directing lessons from Howard Stern.
There is a general idea that comes out in the movie. We get that the people in this movie aren't really very smart. In fact, they are idiots. And they make really bad decisions. The idea that things like this (minus the spy crap, I suppose) could happen anywhere in America, and probably does, comes out. We get it. Sometimes in real life people get killed that don't deserve to get killed. But, hopefully, we don't laugh about it when it does happen.
And if we do, then shame on us.