Burn After Reading
2 The Big Lebowski + 1 Dick Cheney = 3 Burn After Reading
If No Country for Old Men was the Coen Brothers’ twenty-first century Fargo, then Burn After Reading is their attempt to recreate the magic of The Big Lebowski. Lebowski has, which would shock critics in 1996, surpassed Fargo in esteem over the years. Fargo is still a great film, yes, but Lebowski just, you know, tied something together about the malaise of the Bush I-Clinton slacker era. Hell, serious articles have been written about its “prescient politics” for the Bush II era.
So I’m a little hesitant to pan Burn After Reading, lest its politics somehow anticipate the 2024 election. Burn After Reading, though, doesn’t offer the same kind of original characters, limiting its shelf life even if does give penetrating insight into the CIA psyche. The cast is sprawling: John Malkovich is a mid-level intelligence analyst stuck in a horrible marriage to a more-frigid-than-normal Tilda Swinton, who embarks on an affair with a fat, beared George Clooney. Somehow, they get mixed up with Francis McDormand, a health club secretary who laments the fact that she can’t afford plastic surgery, and Brad Pitt, in the film’s only inspired performance as a meat-headed personal trainer. One of Malkovich’s intelligence documents is left in the health club, where McDormand hatches an extortion plan involving prank phone calls and the Russian embassy.
Sounds good, right? The problem is that the Coens try to mock the heavy tone of CIA/FBI/secret intelligence movies like The Good Shepherd while trying to be “quirky” at the same time. Clooney and Pitt act like they’re in O Brother, Where’s My Secret CIA Intelligence CD, with physical ticks like Brad Pitt’s rockin’ out to his iPod and Clooney’s faux-smooth ladies man routine. This is good stuff, if only the Coens had chosen to make that movie. The rest of the film features ridiculously overblown “ominous tones” scoring, like Leonardo DiCaprio or Ed Norton is about ready to blow Matt Damon’s or Joaquin Phoenix’s head off. J.K. Simmons, as a CIA executive, sardonically sums up the entire state of American intelligence (“Report back to me when it makes sense,”), and perhaps Malkovich jazzercising is worth it. Francis McDormand’s desperate health club employee yearning for plastic surgery so badly she’s willing to sell secrets to the Russians—maybe this is will someday make sense as statement about the superficial 90’s. Just don’t mess with this guy.