In 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen introduced us to a man in a used up brown robe that liked to be called "The Dude" (or El Duderino, if you please). A simple man who wanted nothing more than to go bowling and drink white Russians. But instead this poor man was thrust into a world of nihilism, kidnapping, and ferrets just so he can receive some compensation for his defiled rug. After all, that rug really tied the room together. This, of course, is The Big Lebowski, the film that incorporated the Coen Brothers into mainstream America for the first time. Anybody who has seen it cannot go to a bowling alley without laughing at least a little bit. Ten years later, the Coen Brothers are returning to the world of comedy-crime-capers with the star studded Burn After Reading. Looking at the billing alone, one knows what they should expect from this film. Main actors John Malkovich, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Brad Pitt have all either won or been nominated for an Academy Award. Cap it off with the reliable Joel and Ethan Coen, and you have a Best Picture award waiting to happen. Sadly, Burn After Reading does not warrant this praise, nor is it anywhere near as good as the iconic Big Lebowski. But like I said, if you put enough delicious ingredients into a single bowl, you are bound to find something to like. Burn After Reading is a terrific ensemble piece that takes effort from everyone involved to create something wonderful.
The story of Burn After Reading is very difficult to explain given the numerous characters and their respective plot lines. If it gets to be confusing... try reading it again. Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is a physical trainer at Hardbodies Gym. She is a very unhappy woman who surfs internet dating sites for Mr. Right. She is also intent on undergoing numerous reconstructive surgeries to help boost her self esteem. However, her dreams are dashed when she finds she does not have the money to pay for all these procedures. Her luck seemed ready to change when her co-worker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) discovered a disc in the women's locker room which held secret CIA information. Linda convinces Chad to help her find where the disc came from so they could blackmail the person, which could help her pay for her surgeries. They find that the information came from Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who recently quit his job after they tried demoting him for his drinking problem. Unhappy with her husbands decision, Osborne's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) files for divorce, kicking him out of the house so she can be with her man on the side Harry Pfaffer (George Clooney). Katie knows that Pfarrer is cheating on his wife with her, but little does she know he is also cheating on her with anybody he can find. After a chance meeting on the internet, Pfarrer ends up hooking up with Linda, who is still in the process of trying to blackmail Osborne. As every one's lives begin folding over into the others, the result is a very funny (and confusing) film.
To the Coen Brothers, it is not simple enough to just make a comedy. They cannot just write a film that is riotously funny, because it seems to be somewhat beneath them. Much like The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading is not a one dimensional story that relies deeply on hilarity. The humor in Burn After Reading is found more in subtle plot elements and the traits of the characters than in actual jokes. It is the clever writing and perfect execution by the actors that makes the movie funny. There are few directors that could use this technique effectively, and the Coen's fall into that category. Joel and Ethan are unstoppable forces in the world of film making, able to mold a film exactly to their liking, whether it be a taught thriller or a goofball comedy. This is proved by the 1-2 punch they executed with No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading. The brothers make sure they are involved in every element of the film making process. Acting as writers, directors, and producers of every single one of their films ensures that no outside force affects their work. Unswayed by the uneducated criticism that "the Coen's make boring movies", they repeatedly come out and deliver exactly what they want to, and the result is usually terrific. Burn After Reading is not their best effort, but in the hands of any other directors, it would have failed miserably.
But I'm sure if you were to ask the Coen Brothers, they would tell you that their success rests heavily on the shoulders of the actors. In Burn After Reading, spot on performances by every single actor involved helps keep the movie afloat. Given the confusing plot, it was imperative that the performers delivered exceptionally well to keep the audience interested. With not a single wet match in the pack, the movie exceeded typical standards that are expected even of a Coen Brothers film. Frances McDormand, whose character Linda can be considered the main protagonist, is often hilarious as she becomes wrapped up in the world of blackmail. Her real moments of recognition came as she interacted with Pitt and Clooney. Pitt acted as the real comic relief in Burn After Reading, due to his character's dimwitted nature and humorous dancing while listening to his iPod. He also served as a significant character foil in the film, especially when sharing screen time with Malkovich's smart Osborne Cox. George Clooney delivers the most engaging performance in the film as the womanizing hobbyist Harry Pfarrer. He brought a real sense of charisma to the screen and proved to be very enjoyable. But the two actors who deserve outstanding praise are John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. Both are absolutely unforgettable in their roles. Malkovich's scathing and deeply irritated portrayal of the jaded Osborne Cox was not only intensely dramatic and entertaining, but also served as the jumping off point for some jokes. That is the textbook definition of getting the best of both worlds. Swinton too deals out a performance worthy of the Oscar winning actress. Balancing a divorce and an affair, her character was devoid of comedy but still managed to be fascinating.
Although Burn After Reading was blessed with brilliant writing, directing, and acting, it still manages to fall short of what you would hope it to be. The main reason for this is the constantly developing story that takes quite some time to fully reveal itself. Pacing usually is not a problem for the masterful Coen's, who can make a lengthy sequence of desert shots with no dialogue interesting like in No Country, but they seemed a tiny bit off their game here. In this one single aspect they suffered, and it managed to bring the film down a noticeable amount. Their script was full of cunning wit and clever components, but it was still confusing as hell. Even George Clooney in an interview stated he had no idea what the movie was about because it was so damn puzzling. I'm sure he was exaggerating a little, but it gives you an idea of what we are dealing with here.
Burn After Reading is a pleasant 96 minutes long, which is something I thank the Coen's for. Even The Big Lebowski, as terrific as it was, was verging on obscenity with it's length. Even if you are not a fan of the Coen's, Burn After Reading is a different movie for them, and I think they will be able to make a fan out of you. My rating (8/10)