If you look thither, way out there on the cutting edge of filmmaking, you’ll see the Brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel, who now gift us with “Burn After Reading.” A bit of gallows humor to cleanse the movie palate after “No Country for Old Men” (2007), its tongue is poked full well into cheek. And, by any worthwhile definition, it is art.
Art, in the very least, because the Coens have found a way, via their enticingly trenchant work, to disseminate creativity and invigorative ideas to minds otherwise lost in the mass lockstep. They are aberrantly thought-provoking, out on a limb, cold in their deductions on first blush. Just don’t tell anyone…but there’s a lot of humanity there.
In this dilly of a ditty, a strange brew of disparate lives is stirred into a tizzy of wildly unpredictable behavior. Sure to elicit many an omigosh, the plot is like a Rube Goldberg contraption translated into sociological terms, the first switch tripped when CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is demoted for drinking. He’ll show them. He quits.
That night, when the despondent agent informs his doctor wife, superbly portrayed at sub-Arctic temperature by Tilda Swinton, of this current event, the shrew asks what he plans to do next. He says he’d like to write a memoir. If looks could kill, the closing credits would follow.
Meanwhile, somewhere across the Beltway, other players in the human comedy emote and curse and pine and say, ‘If only I could, etc., etc., then I would etc., etc.’ And thus the camera comes to settle on Frances McDormand’s Linda Litzke, an increasingly distracted employee of Hardbodies Fitness Center. She is consumed by a desire for plastic surgery.
But rats, the HMO says nix. So she takes matters into her own hands when dimwit fitness instructor Chad, marvelously interpreted by Brad Pitt, shows her a CD the janitor found. It’s some kind of code…CIA stuff. He’s all giddy. But like a running back who spots her opening, Linda is already planning what we surmise is her first extortion.
Hopelessly caught up in the fantasy of reinventing herself, Ms. Litzke has her rationalizations all in place. Her ship has come in. This CIA guy, these kind of people, they have plenty, and she’s entitled to her fair share. She might even believe it’s divine intervention.
All of which suggests the grand metaphor the Coens construct in this deliciously clever satire. While little escapes their lampoon scope this go-round, the primary focus is on that cadre of goon who, while thinking they know everything, actually know dangerously little about the business of living. Good thing there’s the CIA to watch over them.
Keeping tabs on our desperate principals’ fumblings practically from the first notion of blackmail, the Agency boys are virtually Olympian Gods. Recalling Bob Newhart at his unflappable best, the buttoned-down head superior, played by J.K. Simmons, and his chief intermediary, acted by David Rasche, provide a crucially ingenious purview.
That’s not to say those depicting the mere mortals they scrutinize are anything less than stellar. John Malkovich is an inspired addition to the ensemble cast of Coen brother regulars. The great irony is, compared to those around him, his Osborne is the image of sanity. But alas, the Princeton grad, doubtless of Brahmin stock, suffers a case of hubris.
Nuttier than Heckyll and Jekyll, Linda and Chad wouldn’t understand any of that, and couldn’t care less. Miss McDormand’s flaming screwball is single minded, while Pitt’s muscular but idiotic clump of DNA merely follows along because that’s what he does. The gym rat doesn’t really know right from wrong. Linda gets no such pass.
We suspect that way back, before she lost her soul among the madding crowd, Linda was taught some scruples. Yet somewhere between then and our currently imagined Age of Special Privilege, she has come to feel disenfranchised. You have met her angry self. The right to pursue happiness isn’t enough. She wants it guaranteed and delivered.
Thus it shouldn’t surprise us when, after Malkovich’s fallen CIA man rebuffs her shake down, she hustles over to the Russian Embassy to strike a deal. If she realizes she is, at the bare minimum, a traitor to her country, and in the larger picture an albatross to the commonweal, you wouldn’t know it. McDormand perfectly exacts the misanthrope.
Rounding out this cast of floundering and cheating hearts, George Clooney is batty as Harry Pfarrer, Treasury Dept. wonk, amateur inventor (Guess what he’s cooking up in the basement?) and lothario to a tragic fault. Once this confused little boy of a man mixes with crazy Linda, little doubt is left. Your moviegoing mission is no longer a secret: Search out and enjoy “Burn After Reading.”
“Burn After Reading,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen and stars John Malkovich, Frances McDormand and George Clooney. Running time: 96 minutes