After CIA putz Ozzie Cox (Malkovich) quits over a drink issue, his shocking memoirs fall into the hands of lovelorn gym instructor Linda Litzke (McDormand) and gung-ho assistant Chad (Pitt). Did we mention overly horny federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (Cloon
Ask Ethan Coen to explain his latest fable, and he will scratch his thinning hair and summarise its strange ponderings thus: “It is about the covert world of the CIA and internet dating.” Ask Joel Coen to unravel Burn After Reading, and he’ll stroke his well-trimmed goatee and define its unusual formula thus: “This is our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie - without the explosions.” Indeed, to this previously untapped combo of inert espionage and modern dating rituals, they could add the perils of alcoholism, ’70s conspiracy thrillers, computer malfunction and personal training. Not to forget sexual deviancy. In a career steeped in oddity, this is another polished example of the brothers’ predilection for tossing a pile of wacky ideas and multiple movie references into the juicer to see what flavour emerges.
Following that most un-Coen of eventualities, an Oscar triumph, at first glance you might see their latest as an effort to paddle away from the threatening currents of the mainstream and back into the reassuring calm of the left bank - although, given it was made prior to the release of No Country For Old Men, that would require some nifty clairvoyance on their Brillo-haired behalf. Perhaps they just wanted to reawaken the zany in their filmmaking. Compared to the moody poetry of that classy neo-Western, Burn After Reading has the wild abandon of a punk-rock song - it’s all jibs and jabs, the rope-a-dope moves of a boxer. A slighter, less obviously showy piece that will grow and grow with repeated viewing.
So what’s the rumpus? Ozzie Cox (John Malkovich), a low-level data analyst at the CIA’s voluminous headquarters at Langley, has quit in a fit of pique. He didn’t take too kindly to being demoted. Truth be told, he doesn’t take too kindly to anything. However, a disc of what appears to be his hastily penned revenge memoirs turns up in the ladies’ changing room of Hardbodies Fitness Center. Naturally, personal trainer Linda (Frances McDormand), desperate to fund her forthcoming surgical work, together with her eager-beaver underling Chad (Brad Pitt), decide to sell the intelligence to the Russians. Did we mention overly horny Harry (George Clooney), currently schtupping Ozzie’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) and soon preying upon lonely Linda through the avenue of internet dating? We should. He’s relevant. All of it is played at the amphetamine pace of Raising Arizona.
Cut from similar cloth to Fargo and Lebowski, this is not quite a thriller, and not fully a comedy, but it is very funny and plotted to within an inch of incomprehensible - just like their beloved Chandler. God knows, it errs on the dark side, but the noir is bleached out in the leafy sprawl of Washington DC. Members of the anti-Coen club (unresponsive to the Muncie song, indifferent to bowling) tend to cite the superficial glaze of their art; the tart, unlikable characters; and the smug self-satisfaction at their own cleverness. There will be no swaying even the floaters this time round. If anything, Burn After Reading plays right into the calloused hands of the naysayers. It lacks the immediate charm of classical Coen: there’s no Marge or Dude - good-natured if unconventional counterpoints to the monopoly of jerks, saddos and crazies. Here it’s pretty much just jerks, saddos and crazies.
Ethan, always the more talkative of the brethren, would remind us that most of the characters were written with exactly these actors in mind. Malkovich’s pouting arrogance is a perfect fit for huffy clown Ozzie. McDormand’s disjointed smile and genius for body-language are ideal for nervy, jabbering Linda. Swinton’s snooty grace is primed for Ozzie’s untrustworthy spouse. Out of the crowd, however, it’s the pretty boys who enjoy themselves the most, defiantly mocking their swish Ocean’s Umpteen images. Pitt uncorks his hyperactive loon, blissfully ensconced in the hollow brain-space of a gym-cute bubble-head bounding into the world of espionage like a puppy. Clooney has a wonderful line in smarm he reserves for just these Coen-arranged occasions. Harry is a true-blue sleazebag - wait ’til you see what he’s got in his basement - who emerges out of the chaos as near enough the leading man.
This is precision-built madness. Beneath these chattering lunatics and the pinballing plot lies an intricacy worthy of Kubrick. The sound-editing alone is exquisite: the squeak of a wardrobe door triggering a blast of violence; the hallways of Langley reverberating to the clip-clop of fraught footsteps, rhythmically muffled by carpeting in sonic tribute to The Shining’s zooming trike. Regular cinematographer Roger Deakins may have been on his holidays, but replacement Emmanuel Lubezki (a real person) proves adept at tight, shapely frames and creepy angles.
True Coen fanciers can take solace in such familiar comforts as astonishingly bad highlights in Pitt’s sticky-up hair, the smart-aleck language (although it’s got nothing on the charged patter of Fargo or Lebowski) and a leading character wielding an axe in his dressing gown. And, as is the Coens’ curious wont, the film never quite fits its assumed reality: while we’re darting about contemporary Washington, concerned with such recent preoccupations as social networking and gym regimes, it has the lean, grumbly look of ’70s cinema and the dotty bedlam of trouser-plunging British farce, as if Seven Days In May had been rewritten by Alan Ayckbourn. It is also one of those movies that won’t leave you alone. Percolating away in your brain, its off-centre wit will take shape. The day after, even a week later, one of its peculiar set-pieces will spring to mind.
Ethan might remonstrate, but there runs a theory in certain circles that all Coen films are ultimately about American foreign policy. While it takes work to figure out exactly how that fits The Ladykillers, it is written through Burn After Reading like a stick of rock. Curiously, it’s the schmoes rather than the bureaucrats in the firing line. The CIA suits (led by a too-brief appearance from J. K. Simmons) are benign, bemused and rather gormless; it’s the knuckleheaded plebs who are out of control. America’s troubles, it titters, are of their own making.
As Linda tries to offload the improbable secrets to the very confused Russians, the Agency is baffled. Why the Russians?
The idiots simply can’t think of anywhere else. Farce by its nature is a matter of escalation: each stage of the ever-increasing anarchy is entirely logical, but the net result is insanity. What is Iraq, if not a great, big, terrible farce? Then again, it could just be a big joke on celebrity. There’s nothing that tickles those pesky brothers more than casting a gaggle of gigantic Hollywood stars - including one’s wife - as total nitwits. It’s a high old tale about unintelligent intelligence. That’s the Coens for you.
If No Country For Old Men was vintage port, Burn After Reading is a shot of tequila: eye watering and hard to swallow, but the after-effect is terrific.