I am coming to realize a very tragic flaw with The Coen Brothers as they relate to popular cinema. This being that their most provocative and provocative films have proven to be the least well received to regular cinemagoers. Their Oscar winning film, No Country For Old Men, while spectacular is far inferior to their existential drama A Serious Man, which failed to prove as profitable as the previously mentioned film. The same fate occurred with Burn After Reading, which was released shortly after No Country For Old Men and proved relatively unsuccessful as far as the Coen's films are concerned. Burn After Reading is certainly not as thrilling as No Country For Old Men and arguably lacks the same unique characters, but to dismiss this film entirely is certainly a tragic action. What is offered from the Coen's with Burn After Reading is a very intimate look into a group in American society that many seem to deem unfilmable. Yet as this film shows, this group, which I will discuss later, provides some of the most joyously fantastic humor available in a dark comedy and it really makes me want to revisit the entire Coen Brothers' oeuvre to find similar subject matter.
Burn After Reading, like so many of Joel and Ethan's movies, involves multiple narratives which by some unseen fate become cruelly intertwined. The film opens with an aging CIA agent named Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) discovering that he is being asked to resign from his job, due to various reasons, most notably his continually problematic alcoholism. This announcement comes at a terrible time for his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) whose vanity becomes threatened with a sudden cessation of money. Instead of supporting her ailing husband, Katie decides to pursue her affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a sex-crazed employee of the state department, who dismisses not only Osbourne, but his own wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel) as nothing more than an author of tacky children's stories. This entire narrative of infidelity is arched by the discovery of Osbourne's memoirs at a local gym by two mundane employees, the jockish Chad (Brad Pitt) and the aging Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) whose desire to get plastic surgery challenges even Katie's vanity. This group of characters began to cross each others paths', assuming that large scale spying is occurring and that Osbourne's memoirs are a major component to refueling the Cold War ideologies in the United States. Despite being arbitrary, Osbourne's memoirs being leaked, prove to lead to larger amounts of infidelity, murder and political corruption. All of this blows up in the faces of the characters involved and proves rather tragic. Yet as the film shows in its closing monologue of a CIA Superior (J.K. Simmons) while stating that the group "tried its best" that the lives of those men and women involved in this conspiracy were indeed full of sound and fury, but as always signified nothing. It is a truly existential film that has an equally bleak ending, similar to its predecessor No Country For Old Men, but so much funnier.
As I noted earlier, this film is concerned with a very specific group of the American demographic. Burn After Reading is preoccupied with middle-aged ennui, a great subject given that it likely reflects The Coen Brother's own personal struggle to stay relevant in an ever evolving world of cinema. Burn After Reading is all about individuals staying relevant when younger generations are vying to take their place. From the onset Osbourne reflects this given his removal from the CIA for younger agents. Instead of proving his worth to the CIA, he quits and commits to discussing the better days of the agency, a classic action of middle aged individuals to become nostalgic as opposed to relevant. Similarly, both Katie and Linda find themselves loosing their relevance in very physical terms, a particularly notable issue given that both of the characters are women. Yet, neither attempts to adapt to the situation, but instead rely on medical advancements to rekindle their youth. Finally, even George Clooney and Brad Pitt's characters, which are implied to be relatively young, are preoccupied with being hypermasculine to a fault, with Clooney being a philanderer and Pitt being fanatical about working out to a fault. The ultimate problem in the film is that each character's desire to remain relevant becomes hazardous to the group as a whole causing very physical problems in their realities and their inability to acknowledge that they are not indeed "doing their best" is a very dire problem. With that being said, I should note that I think The Coen's are doing their very best at their age and their relevance is undeniable, certainly in their ability to reflect on a film of ages gone by and rethink it for a new generation, this being of course their glorious adaptation of True Grit. Burn After Reading is a call to adapt, or else flail in a new generation with differing ideologies which manifest themselves in a variety of forms.
This is an excellent Coen Brothers film that I strongly suggest owning. Getting a cheap copy of this film is relatively easy and you will not regret it, I promise.