Ethan Coen: "You know, it's our Tony Scott, Bourne Identity kind of movie."
Joel Coen: "Yeah, sort of."
Ethan: "Without the explosions."
By this time next year Coen Brothers Ethan and Joel will be celebrating their 25th year as independent filmmakers. They started with a stylish neo-noir epic and quickly moved on to their own brand of muted screwball comedy, often centering on the pea-brained but adorable types once given the derogatory name "hicks." Even as they diversified into gangster parodies and outright screwball fantasies, the Coen boys were tagged with the negative rap that they "don't respect ordinary people" -- that they are smarty-pants hipsters scoring easy points by making their characters dumber than dumb. The big schism picture was 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? which had a field day skewering Southern yokels as endearing pinheads: "Gopher, Everett?" It doesn't seem to matter that the Coens have targeted flaky slackers and big-city phonies with the same zeal.
Lately the Coens have been doubling back on their neo-noir beginnings. Last summer's Burn After Reading -- official site -- may be their blackest comedy yet, a laugh-out-loud look at low morals, bureaucratic paranoia and high crimes in the Washington, D.C., Beltway. It's a terrific ensemble picture with great parts for the likes of Frances McDormand, George Clooney and John Malkovich. Even more surprising, Brad Pitt tries his hand at playing a core Coen crazy and comes off with a solid "A" performance. Burn After Reading isn't as solemn as the Coen's No Country for Old Men, but it's easily as profound. The modern spy thriller is undone by one woman's biological clock. The entire apparatus of the C.I.A. is no match for America's most subversive secret institution: an online dating service.
Burn After Reading begins with a romantic crisis in the gym managed by the lovesick Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins). Ted can't seem to connect with Linda Litzke (McDormand), a trainer panicked by a body succumbing to middle age sag and traumatized by the fact that her insurance policy won't pay for elective plastic surgery. Then a lost CD-R turns up in the gym locker room, apparently chock full of C.I.A. secrets. Linda's cheerful but less-than-ethical co-worker Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) formulates a plan: Linda can offer to return the disc with the strong suggestion that she's entitled to a handsome reward. Blind to reason, Linda latches onto the ransom gambit as her last hope to a happy life.
The owner of the CD-R is C.I.A. analyst Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), who is also suffering a midlife crisis. Osbourne has just recently quit the agency over a drinking problem he refuses to acknowledge, and his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is furious that he's abandoned his pension and benefits. When Linda and Chad clumsily contact him in the middle of the night, Osborne thinks no farther than his personal outrage: "What kind of conspiracy is this? You're all morons. I think you're all part of a League of Morons!" Unfortunately, Osborne's pig-headedness guarantees him instant League membership as well.
This situation quickly expands into an absurd Peyton Place scenario driven by the sexual desires of people with something to hide. Katie Cox is two-timing Osborne with a family friend, ex-Treasury bodyguard Harry Pfarrer (Clooney). The dishonest Harry has no intention of leaving his wife, successful children's book author Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). In addition to Katie, Harry is boffing any number of women that he meets through an online dating service.
Osborne taps his professional connections to have Chad and Linda followed. To prep her divorce, Katie engages private eyes to check on Osborne. Frustrated that Osborne won't talk money, Chad and Linda take the CD-R to the Russian Embassy in search of a cash payout. C.I.A. informants at the Embassy tip off Osborne's former superiors back at the Agency, and soon everybody's surveiling everybody. Nobody has a clear picture of what's going on, and the collective paranoia is going through the roof.
The ironic thing is that the key to the story is the Internet dating service, not the C.I.A. -- Burn After Reading is more like Max Ophuls' classic La Ronde than a John Le Carré novel. Several players patronize the same online dating site; a certain walkway down by the Potomac is the pickup point for any number of blind dates. Trying out the service, Linda gets an uncommunicative guy who sleeps with her but turns out to be married. That handsome rat Harry Pfarrer is pulling the same scam. None of these people realize that the cheating game goes both ways, resulting in a cascade of painful -- but funny -- turns of fate.
The comedy of errors is bolstered by wonderful character turns from an agile cast. John Malkovich is more amusing than he's been for years, and George Clooney makes a marvelous sexual weasel. Tilda Swinton is a hateful spouse and merciless divorce planner. Brad Pitt contributes a wonderful turn as the cheerful chipmunk health nut who gets far too deep into Linda's problems. Both Pitt's Chad and Richard Jenkins' Ted go the extra mile to make Linda's dreams come true. That's when Burn After Reading takes a cruel turn to the dark side of black comedy. After all the goofy comedy, two or three moments feel like blows to the stomach.
Also of special note is the delightful J.K. Simmons (the understanding father in last year's Juno) as the C.I.A. chief whose only response to the insanity is to keep shoving it deeper under the rug. The agency detects treasonous activities and even murder but does nothing about them. As in Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes, the intelligence community's main function seems to be to suppress information. The outcome is as painfully unfair as it is painfully funny. Burn After Reading's final moments carry much more of a political kick than the brooding fatalism of No Country for Old Men.
Universal's DVD and Blu-ray discs of Burn After Reading offer a crisp transfer of a movie designed for clarity and speed, not high style. The attractive photography makes good use of the District of Columbia environs, contrasting the corporate C.I.A. hallways with the concrete and steel spaces in the Russian Embassy. Everybody looks good in this League of Fools -- part of the tragedy is that Linda's anxiety over her appearance is completely unwarranted.
For extras Universal gives us three fairly brief EPK-based featurettes anchored by Joel and Ethan Coen. The pair have worked out an offbeat compromise with the publicity game, offering droll comments in sort of a Robert Crumb monotone. The other star contributors follow the standard interview formula, with more dignity than is usual. The third featurette is billed as a comedy about George Clooney's return collaboration, but the only funny thing is Clooney's obvious amusement at playing such a silly idiot as Harry Pfarrer.
The Blu-ray disc's "BD Live" features supposedly enable viewers to share favorite movie clips with their friends over the Internet, but why would we want to spend that time promoting Universal's movie? We're also invited to download "the latest trailers." So far, the interactivity of BD Live seems geared more to studio marketing aims than viewer desires. To this reviewer, it smells like Brave New Advertising schemes have entered the Blu-ray equation. Or am I just another paranoid member of the video League of Fools?
From the disc:
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