Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Review - Burn After Reading

After their Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, whatever Joel and Ethan Coen chose to do next was likely to be a disappointment, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Burn After Reading might have been something of a disappointment whatever the circumstances. This pitch-black farce is a comic riff on the Coens' favourite theme – a bunch of fools falling over themselves in the pursuit of money – and as amusing as it is, there's something missing at the heart of it. Set in Washington, the plot spins on a disc that belongs to ex-CIA man Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). He has just seen his career go up in smoke after his superiors suspected him of having a drinking problem ("You're a Mormon" he responds to one of them, "next to you we all have a drinking problem"), and he has decided to resign in protest and work on his memoirs (or, as Malkovich deliciously pronounces it, "my mem-wah"). He's oblivious to the fact that his wife (a chilly Tilda Swinton) is carrying on behind his back with married federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who, unbeknownst to her, also trawls internet dating sites looking for one-night stands.

As ever with the Coens' films, nobody knows anything, but two employees of Hardbodies Gym – Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) – think they have the upper hand when they find the aforementioned disc, and believe they can use it to blackmail Cox. Linda thinks this is the answer to her prayers, the fastest possible route to getting the cash she needs for the extensive plastic surgery she desires, while Chad thinks – well, it's hard to know what Chad thinks, if anything. He has the goofy, carefree demeanour of a man who doesn't really like to give his brain much of a workout, and he is beautifully embodied by Pitt, in a performance that is undoubtedly the movie's highlight. After playing sad wistfulness in films like Babel and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the addition of a haircut that resembles his Johnny Suede pompadour miraculously seems to have de-aged him by twenty years, and he plays Chad like a clueless overgrown child. It's a pleasure to watch because Pitt has always had a gift for comedy (which has been sadly underused for many years), and he has some smashing moments here. Watch the way he narrows his eyes in what he believes to be a threatening manner when he first meets Cox, and watch how those eyes cloud with confusion when Cox angrily turns the tables on him; it's a terrifically funny piece of acting.

The Coens have always had a knack for creating such roles, of course, the kind of characters that seem perfectly suited to the actors selected for them; they seem to tap into something hitherto unrecognised in that actor, and that so often has a freeing effect on the cast. The same trick works for Malkovich, who probably gives his best performance in this film since he played, well, John Malkovich (his repeated line of exasperation-"what the fuck!"-is almost always funny). But while the gags are frequent, they're generally mild, and occasionally the Coens make the audience's chuckles stick in their throat when they suddenly bring a violent edge into the picture. This is nothing new, of course, as anyone who remembers Steve Buscemi's encounter with a woodchipper will testify, but in Fargo the violence was offset by the deep sense of compassion Frances McDormand brought to the role of Marge. You could say the same about the Leo and Tom's relationship in Miller's Crossing, or the funny, oddly touching friendship between The Dude, Walter and Donny in The Big Lebowski. Burn After Reading doesn't have that core of emotional truth to hold it steady while the characters hurtle around and careen into each other at an increasingly frenetic pace, and as a result, the offhand way in which the Coens deal with two of the film's most likable characters just comes off as cruel.

So we laugh, but the laughter is hollow. I don't really get the sense that Joel and Ethan care about this plot or the people involved in it, and aside from Pitt and Malkovich, the characters are thinly conceived. McDormand's performance is one of her most strained, and George Clooney isn't pushed very far by his turn as an ageing lothario. The real pleasures are to be found in small moments, in the dialogue between two befuddled CIA agents played perfectly by JK Simmons and David Rasche, or in the completely unexpected reveal of an odd contraption that Clooney's character has been building in the basement. But Burn After Reading is just a collection of fitfully amusing touches, rather than the kind of fully-formed, byzantine narrative that we know the brothers are capable of, and it never recovers from an abrupt, bloody twist about an hour in. "Report back to me when... I don't know... when it makes sense" Simmons tells his underling halfway through the picture, but it never really does entirely make sense, and that doesn't seem to matter. The disappointing ending just feels like a half-hearted shrug, and I responded in kind as the credits rolled.