“I know what you represent,” sneers John Malkovich, playing an ex- CIA operative confronting one of his blackmailing tormentors in the Coen Brothers’ latest, “Burn After Reading” — “you represent the entire idiocy of today!”
The Coens, unlike Malkovich’s aggrieved spook, may not take a hatchet to all the idiots, but their film is equally merciless. After the success of their taut thriller “No Country For Old Men” last year, the Coens — director-producer team Joel and Ethan — again change tack, reverting to broad comedy in “Burn After Reading.” And yet, if “No Country” felt almost biblical in parts — with serial killer Anton Chigurh an avenging angel bent on punishing men for their sins — that’s also true of “Burn,” which feels like a document of the seven deadly sins in today’s den of iniquity, Washington, D.C.
First up is Osbourne Cox (Malkovich): A veteran CIA analyst, he’s being moved to a lesser position due to a drinking problem. In a fit of rage, he quits, which doesn’t sit well with his ball-buster wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who’s already having an affair with Harry (George Clooney), an all-too-suave federal marshal. As Osbourne sinks further into the bottle, Katie prepares for divorce, and on a lawyer’s advice, backs up all her husband’s computer data onto a CDR.
Unfortunately, a copy gets misplaced at a fitness club, Hardbodies, where it’s found by two employees, Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt). Linda is single and middle-aged, desperately hooking up with men on Internet dating sites, and frustrated that her health plan won’t pay for liposuction. Chad is an iPod-wearing, Gatorade- slurping dumbo. Together, the two examine the contents of the disc and are sure they’re found “secret sh-t.” They convince themselves that the owner will give them a “reward” for its return, a notion that soon spills over into blackmail. “This is our opportunity,” babbles Linda. “You don’t get many of these. Like you slip on the ice in front of a fancy restaurant. Or this.”
Chad and Linda contact Osbourne about the disc, but Oz again blows his top, and things are soon spiraling out of control, with the Agency stepping in to monitor the situation. The Coens have described the film as “our version of a Jason Bourne type of movie — without the explosions,” but it’s more like a world of wannabe Bournes: Osbourne is a loser who can neither work at the agency nor write his tell-all memoir to get back at them; Harry, the gun-toting macho marshal, is all pose, good at picking up women but fatally over-reacting when he does draw his gun; and Linda and Chad are messing with the intelligence agencies without the least idea of how to go about it.
The Coens have long been believers in the essential idiocy of most criminal activity, most famously in “Fargo,” where Steve Buscemi winds up in a wood chipper. But you can also see it in their first film, “Blood Simple,” where a jealous bartender takes out a contract on his wife, only to get himself whacked, or “The Big Lebowski,” where a group of nihilists’ grand extortion scheme is reduced to mugging a few bowlers for chump change. In the Coens’ universe, Murphy’s Law reigns supreme, and the best-laid plans rarely are.
“Burn After Reading” is a film that, lurking under the mask of comedy, rails at the America of 2009. Aside from the vanity, pettiness, narcissism and get-rich quick schemes, the film is filled with wince-inducing Americanisms — Chad asks for something to drink by saying “I gotta hydrate,” while his boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins), seeing the “secret sh-t” being examined on his office computer, whines “I’m not comfortable with this.”
The Coens also plant a boot in the rear of pop-psychology self-help delusions: Harry laughs “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff,” just after he’s killed a guy, while Linda, when confronted with the danger of her scheme by Ted, snaps “I don’t like this snideness and negativity, I’m trying to re-work myself.”
Yes, it’s a film full of idiots, but unlike “The Big Lebowski,” not one of them is a likable dunce. “Burn After Reading” offers a particularly jaundiced view of Washington — everybody’s sleeping with each other and primarily concerned with covering their ass. Yet somehow I doubt a lot of people are going to enjoy hearing this from a film so scathingly cynical it could corrode metal. The best Coen films have a heart — The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” or the pregnant cop Marge in “Fargo” — and that’s notably absent here.