Dirs/scr: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. US. 2008. 95mins.
The first film in the Coen Brothers’ two-picture pact with Focus Features and Working Title is a smart urban screwball comedy about the perils of idiocy that uses its all-star cast to dazzling and often hilarious effect. A beautifully produced mix of spy story, US zeitgeist satire and relationship drama, Burn After Reading cons the audience into seeing depths - and Fargo parallels - that don’t really exist. The consumate, near-throwaway ending sets the record straight: it’s a feelgood comedy so enjoy the ride and don’t take it all so seriously.
In their last comedy, Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens’ quirky style was watered down, and the rom-com quotient forced up, by the pressures of a major studio budget. Reputedly made for around a third of Cruelty’s $60 million, Burn After Reading suffers no such pressures, and as a result it feels much more like a real Coen Bros film, rather than a commercial comedy with zany Coen walk-ons.
Central to the film’s appeal is the Washington DC setting with its brownstones, prim parks, viaducts, faux country mansions and fitness clubs. One of these is the overcrowded Hardbodies where Linda Litzke (McDormand) works alongside her gushy but gutless colleague Chad Feldheimer (Pitt). When the hapless duo find a CD containing the ‘classified’ memoirs of irate, alcoholic CIA agent Osborne Cox (a perfectly cast, self-parodying Malkovich), a half-baked blackmail scheme arises. Meanwhile, Cox’s cold, calculating English wife Katie (Swinton) is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who also meets and beds women he meets online - including Linda. He does this more out of distraction than through any lack of affection for his own wife Sandy (Marvel).
The script was apparently written with the cast in mind, and it works. As with the Oceans franchise, Burn After Reading’s feelgood factor has as much to do with A-list actors having fun as it does with comic timing. Pitt’s turn as an airhead, blonde-highlighted gym instructor suggests that he would fit snugly into the bumbling numbskull role the Coens have so far given George Clooney. Clooney himself gets an equally tasty workout as a fitness- and sex-obssessed federal marshal who is too dim to realise that he is in love with his wife, while McDormand is solid as a no-longer-young single woman lost in the dating jungle, who is pinning all her hopes on cosmetic surgery. Malkovich and Swinton, more typecast but no less enjoyable for all that, round out a film that will derive much of its marketing muscle from those names on the poster.
As in Fargo, the classic Hollywood dramatic springboard - people making the wrong decisions - spreads to become a kind of existential miasma: even in the city that supposedly governs hearts and minds worldwide, brains are furred, the simplest acts of interpersonal communication are riven with difficulty, and even the CIA (led by a brilliantly offhand JK Simmons) hasn’t got a clue what’s going on. But there are glimpses too of real societal dilemmas - Linda’s complaint that ‘I have got about as far as I can with this body’; Harry suddenly surprised by the fact that, amidst his philandering, he misses his wife; a brief but well-judged scene in which Osborne Cox tells his mute, wheelchair-bound, father - himself a former CIA operative - that he has failed him.
Children Of Men DoP Emmanuel Lubezki gives the film a dark, autumnal look that lends its screwball antics a melancholy twist. Carter Burwell’s driving orchestral soundtrack - at times elegaic, at times menacing - also contributes to this tonal counterpoint, setting up echoes with No Country For Old Men - another yarn about bad decisions.
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