BURN AFTER READING
Directed by: The Coen brothers
Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovitch, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt
In a time when warantless wiretapping, and the neglect of due process have become government policy, there are surprisingly few black comedies that challenge these frightening realities with sharp, witty humor. “Burn After Reading” - a clever farce that captures the absurdity of the post-911 era - does just that.
Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt), two obtuse gym employees, stumble upon the unfinished memoirs of former CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovitch). Thinking it’s highly classified information, the doltish duo plan a not-so-elaborate extortion scheme that completely backfires as they suddenly discover they’re in way over their heads. Meanwhile, a federal marshal named Harry (George Clooney) and a handful of secret agents find themselves entangled in the mess.
The film plays out like a parody of the spy-thriller genre, only darker and more provocative. In the opening shot, the camera zooms in on a photo of the world. It eventually ends up in Washington, D.C. and into the lives of the main characters, as if to suggest we’re all being watched from some distant satellite in outer space. The entire movie seeks to illustrate the disturbingly large reach of state-run surveillance programs. The CIA is portrayed as an omniscient and intrusive organization that regularly monitors American citizens. Ironically, nothing comes of it beyond inducing widespread paranoia - no crimes are prevented and no lessons are learned.
“Burn After Reading” is as much a commentary on the culture of stupidity currently engulfing the United States as it is a satire of contemporary politics. The Princeton and NYU Tisch-educated Ethan and Joel Coen rail against what they call “the idiocy of today” - the superficial obsession with appearance, and the value of physical over mental exercise. Linda and Chad are the primary representatives of this dumbed-down America that the filmmakers resent so much. While she’s almost exclusively driven by her desire to get a series of plastic surgery operations (which to her bewilderement isn’t covered in her health care plan), he’s, well, just plain clueless. By spending all day working out his muscles, he seems to have forgotten how to use his brain.
Of course, these colorful characters wouldn’t be nearly as funny without the talent of the actors playing them. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt’s caricatures of peppy personal trainers are spot-on. And it’s absolutely priceless seeing George Clooney transform himself from a cool and composed Cassanova to a twitching ball of nerves who’s convinced he’s being tailed by spooks; or John Malkovitch angrily dropping f-bombs in every line as he takes on “the league of morons” around him.
The Coen brothers are obviously in their element here. “Burn After Reading” is cynical, unflattering, and yet hilarious - the perfect mix of goofiness and intelligence, and by far the best comedy of 2008.