The Coen brothers are riding high on success, both financially, and critically of No Country For Old Men. The film was a dark thriller, so to follow it up, the Coens shot a comedy, something they have had success in the past with The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou. In Burn After Reading, they set up a premise that sounds like a thriller, but fill the cast with characters who are both incredibly stupid and belong in a screwball comedy.
Osbourne Cox is a CIA analyst. His alcoholism has caused the powers that be to review his work situation and downgrade his status. Enraged, Cox quits the agency and begins his memoirs, which threatens to expose certain ‘explosive’ elements in his career. Cox’s wife, Katie is sick of Cox, plans to divorce him and hook up with Harry Pfarrer, a serial internet dater she’s been having an affair with. Katie makes a data CD of Cox’s computer information which inadvertently ends up in the hands of Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke, two idiotic fitness centre employees who decide to use the information to blackmail Osbourne Cox for money so that Linda can get cosmetic surgery.
And so the ensemble cast have a great time getting laughs and hamming it up. It’s just a shame they’re the only ones really having a laugh. The trailer for Burn After Reading was very promising. It showed some of the craziness of the cast and provided a few laughs. But unfortunately they showed pretty much all the laughs. I warn you, if you’ve seen the trailer for this movie, you will see everything, and I do mean everything coming way before it happens. The little plot twists are blatantly obvious, the laughs are already had and there is little left in the way of mystery. It’s a prime example of why trailers should be kept to the very minimum of footage.
Firstly, the story is very thin. It’s not that complicated despite the many prime characters and their various motivations. The characters themselves are a mish-mash of the sort of dumb secondary characters that have populated the Coens’ films over the years. They’re eccentric and have little quirks that set them apart from the average joe. In this respect, it feels like the Coens are at a stretch to fill the film. There’s not quite enough plot, so the characters are there to distract the audience. Having said that, the characters do provide some laughs. But it’s just not enough to bolster a rather weak script.
The performances, from a very very impressive cast are pretty good. Everyone has played a version of their character before, so they’re in relatively comfortable shoes. There are highlights, though. John Malkovich’s Osbourne Cox is a well-spoken, but dangerously on-edge kinda guy. He’s the person you don’t want to piss off, and Malkovich does this very well. It’s great to see him play this kind of role outside kids’ movies. It’s just a shame there’s not much more of him. Richard Jenkins, a brilliant character actor who’s been around for years has the role with the most meat, despite how little his screen time is. Jenkins’ character really is the most normal character in the film, with motivations that are more real. And Jenkins’ creates a character that’s actually believable amongst many cartoons. And Brad Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer provides most of the laughs in the film. He’s a blonde, idiotic, image-obsessed personal trainer. Yet he does have something of a heart of gold. He’s got ideas that he cannot execute and really dodgy plans. And Pitt plays this brilliantly. He makes Feldheimer someone you feel sorry for when things go wrong for him. Yet you pray for things to go wrong so that the laughs begin. George Clooney’s played the idiot before. In both O Brother Where Art Thou and Leatherheads. His character feels like an extension of those roles, so we’re seeing nothing new there. Tilda Swinton, as Katie Cox also has played the no-nonsense ruthless business type before, and it’s something she does well. And Frances McDormand, who plays the other idiot of the piece has a few choice moments and a few laughs.
Burn After Reading is rather smug. But it’s just not that funny. The ending is far too abrupt and is told to us rather than shown. Which breaks the cardinal rule of screenwriting- show, don’t tell. It’s not a remarkable film, and considering it’s from the Coens, I had hoped for far better. It won’t really jump out in the cannon of Coen films. There are a few entertaining moments, and Brad Pitt continues doing some of the best work of his career. But other than that, it’s all kind forgettable. Burn After Reading is an appropriate title. Because you most likely will forget after watching.