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In many ways Burn After Reading is the epitome of a Coen brothers movie (those brothers being Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing and directing team responsible for Oscar winners like Fargo and No Country for Old Men and cult favorites like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski). It works images of extreme violence and sexual imagery into mundane daily life for black comic effect. It features quirky people with common annoying habits exaggerated to a barely tolerable degree. Themes of greed and corruption are played for deepest irony. And the majority of the characters are so narcissistic they're unable to connect to one another in any meaningful way.
But where their other films made use of only a couple of these elements at a time, or played up some while downplaying others, this latest Coen project (rated R for language, violence, and sexuality) pushes them all for everything they're worth.
When alcoholic CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job and decides to write a memoir, his cold-fish wife (Tilda Swinton) decides she's had enough. Preparing to divorce Osborne in favor of her lover (George Clooney), she copies her husband's memoir as well as all his financial information onto a disk for her lawyer. But when the disk winds up on the locker room floor of a popular gym, 40-ish, single assistant manager Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) thinks she's finally found her ticket to true love and a new life. If only she and her co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) can blackmail ex-agent Cox with what Linda believes are highly classified government secrets, she can finally get enough plastic surgery to attract a good man.
What follows is a bleak parody of a spy caper. Identities are mistaken, paths unknowingly cross, and lovers betray one another. The only difference is that the spies are morons and the stakes they're playing for are nil.
On paper this sounds like it should be an amusing concept. So many sacred cows of modern America are slaughtered. A positive attitude trumps all obstacles? Not here. You can achieve anything you set your mind to? Not if what you've set your mind to is looking like a teenager when you're 45. The problem is there's no one in the story to root for, and the Coens take so much pleasure at setting up their cast of unlikeable characters for punishment, it all adds up to a rather depressing time.
There has always been a sense of misanthropy running through the brothers' work. The majority of their characters wreak havoc on the people around them in their quests for money, status, or simply recognition that they're right and everyone else wrong. But this was balanced by characters that showed occasional flashes of nobility-at least enough to give the sense that the filmmakers still had an affection for humankind despite our grosser tendencies.
Burn After Reading is the movie you get if you remove that affection. The people who populate this film are so self-obsessed and emotionally isolated from one another, so unrelentingly unpleasant, it's hard to care what happens to them. The result is that rather than feeling like a commentary on the vanity of human endeavors, the movie itself feels like a self-reverential vanity project. Even though Frances McDormand's character is, at least, a cheery sort, she is only so in that strange self-help, motivation-manual kind of way. Her life's goal to remake her body with plastic surgery overrules any moral impulses or even common sense she might have.
And that seems to be the film's point-to reflect a society so obsessed with banal ideas of beauty and so interested in fulfilling desires for status and physical pleasure that it doesn't recognize how hopelessly pointless its endeavors are. All it creates in its strivings is loneliness and loss. Quite a downer concept for a comedy, however black. Which is probably why it isn't very funny.