The Cohen Brothers are truly some of the most diverse filmmakers of all time. Throughout their careers together they have balanced their slate with comedies, dramas, thrillers, noirs and screwballs. Considering they followed up their first work (BLOOD SIMPLE) with a comedy (RAISING ARIZONA), it seems only fitting that their Oscar winning thriller, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, be followed by a comedy.
Like many Cohen Brothers comedies, BURN AFTER READING shines a light on the common man and takes an absurdist and ironic look at their hopes, dreams, insecurities and desires. In the vastly underrated THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, an earnest but simple minded mailroom worker finds himself a cog in a vast corporate conspiracy when all he wants is to push his hula hoop design. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY involved a romantic-at-heart divorce attorney who also is a fall guy for a bigger plot. Despite the kidnapping scheme at the center of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, all The Dude wanted was his rug back.
BURN AFTER READING involves CIA secrets, Russian embassies and backdoor meetings but at the center of it all is a middle aged gym trainer who wants to get some plastic surgery to keep up with the young hardbodies who surround her. The perfect actress for the part was chosen in Frances McDormand who is the right age and has the right authenticity and humility. She stumbles upon a disc containing the memoirs of ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) and employs her slow witted friend Chad (Brad Pitt) to help her extort him for money she will use to get a tummy tuck, breast enhancement and liposuction. She has gone as far in her present body as she perceives she can go. Cox, who has been fired from his Balkans desk for alcoholism, is married to an icy Brit (Tilda Swinton) who is having an affair with a doofus with no standards (George Clooney) who is building something mysterious in his basement. The revelation of the device being built in Clooney’s basement is impossible to guess but represents a full commitment to exploring the nature of these characters. These are simple people with simple needs and desires. The involvement of the CIA in the plot structure allows for a bit of slight of hand and also allows the Cohens to slip in some social satire.
The performances from Pitt, Clooney, Swinton, McDormand and especially John Malkovich are all fantastic. The script is quite a marvel as it doubles back on itself and intertwines all the threads while offering some twists and surprises along the way. The show is stolen however by JK Simmons and David Rasche as a CIA boss and his underling who try to navigate these complex events with a dry detachment. Pitt and Malkovich have a memorable moment in a car as well.
Like many other Cohens comedies, we are left with people who find themselves in a situation far beyond their scope or grasp. These people aren’t built for CIA conspiracies. They’re vain, shallow, average, internet daters, sex enthusiasts, drunks, philanderers and they’ve taken too many cues on life from movies. I have always found earnestness to be an endearing quality, and this lot is no exception. For all their obvious flaws, there is a sweetness to McDormand’s quest for love on the internet or Clooney’s quest to find someone to share his big foam wedge with. BURN AFTER READING is a very funny film that continues the Cohen Brothers’ tradition of unique insight into the ‘fish out of water’ tale.