The Cohen Brothers are wildly uneven filmmakers, at least to my taste. At their best, they transcend genre (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men) and their humor is sublimely in keeping with the message and overall tone of a piece. When they backfire, the results can be inexplicable: The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and now Burn After Reading.
It’s difficult to figure out what the Brothers are trying to get at with Burn After Reading. It’s a film in which every character acts purely selfishly and plot beats flow from those motivations and some highly exaggerated implications. It’s not much – the Cohens have been playing with this idea to a greater or lesser extent throughout all of their films.
With that said, the movie offers a few small pleasures: Brad Pitt’s bouncy goofball makes up for many of his more “actorly” failures – he’s a joy to watch; Richard Jenkins does incredible things with his eyes when delivering lines like “I’m not here representing HardBodies Gym…” while facing a loaded gun; J.K. Simmons turns a standard-issue CIA upper management stereotype on its ear with his hilarious deadpan practicality (it’s a perfect blend of writing and acting).
The photography is mostly ugly, government-issue stuff (maybe that was the point?) The music and sound try to parody the standard-issue thriller model; maybe they don’t go far enough? The sex jokes and vulgar language don’t serve any higher purpose except to be vulgar for their own sake (Jack Nicholson went the same direction in The Departed and just about ruined that film for me).
The seeds are present for some interesting possibilities that never really materialize. Frances McDormand’s character bases her misguided actions on a lifetime spent watching movies about spies and intrigue (it’s also why she thinks she has to reinvent herself as a Hollywood-approved sexpot.) Expanding this idea (every character playing a role they have adopted from movies or TV) could have yielded a more raucous comedy, ala Steve Martin’s Bowfinger (delusions feeding upon and magnifying other delusions until there is a farcical explosion.) At one point, an observer points out that most of the characters seem to be sleeping with each other; again, this might have been funnier if it was actually the case. George Clooney’s sex addict seems to be cowed by Tilda Swinton and charmed by Frances McDormand – it might have been interesting to explore why he’d reject the sharp, good looking professional for the blowsy self-proclaimed loser… At one point, he presents McDormand with his ridiculously disgusting invention; when we expect her to be repulsed, she responds with glee. That moment is the key to what a twisted delight this film might have been. I suppose it wasn’t meant to be.