Have the Coen brothers followed-up their Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men” with another film as close to perfection as their last? The answer is no. But they haven’t really tried. As often in the past, they’ve chosen to follow an ambitious picture with what amounts to a divertissement, a sort of calorie-free cinematic palate cleanser. But although “Burn After Reading” isn’t much more than an extravagantly complicated joke, it’s a pretty funny one, with plenty of those mordantly humorous jolts the writer-directors are so good at.
The movie is basically a spy comedy with domestic undercurrents, focusing on two sets of characters that link up in unlikely ways. John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a volatile CIA analyst who quits the agency after he’s been demoted because of a drinking problem. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), a stern pediatrician, is having an affair with Treasury marshal Harry Pfarrer, a libidinous ladies’ man who’s nonetheless of two minds about dumping his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), a successful, and very well-off, writer of children’s books.
Elsewhere, at the D.C. Hardbodies Fitness Center, voluble clerk Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is surfing dating sites looking for a man and fighting with the gym’s insurance company over its refusal to pay for the multiple cosmetic surgeries she thinks she needs while remaining blithely oblivious to the fact that her boss Ted (Richard Jenkins) is obviously pining for her. Instead she spends most of her time complaining to and conspiring with her hyper co-worker, flamboyant but none too bright trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt).
The two worlds collide when Linda and Chad come into possession of a computer disc containing notes for the tell-all memoir that the vengeful Cox is planning to pen. Infuriated when the spook reacts angrily to their late-night phone call (and by his failure to offer a reward for the discs return)—a farcical highpoint—the two decide to blackmail him; and when that doesn’t work, to sell the disc to the understandably puzzled Russians as what they imagine will be a profitable back-up. Meanwhile Osborne finds himself locked out of the house by Katie, who’s decided to get a divorce (and had copied the troublesome disc in preparation for it), and Harry, always on the search for new conquests, links up with Linda through the Internet. He also becomes aware that somebody’s following him—why will be revealed only late in the game.
And a game is basically what the whole of “Burn After Reading” amounts to—a complex fandango of duplicity, deceit and sheer foolishness in which there’s never really anything at stake despite the fact that as the plot works its labyrinthine way, two rather grisly deaths occur. (They’re meant to be both funny and shocking, though they’re a bit too gruesomely staged to be all that humorous.) But though the narrative isn’t all that clever, it’s enough on which to hang a steady succession of amusing touches, from Malkovich’s rant on learning of his demotion through Clooney’s peculiar anniversary present for Sandy, McDormand’s conversation with an amazed cosmetics surgeon (Jeffrey DeMunn), Jenkin’s sad-eyed worship of Linda, and Pitt’s happy return to his “Johnny Suede” look and his engagingly flippant, goofily conspiratorial attitude. And in the background there’s a wonderfully deadpan verbal soft-shoe routine performed by David Rasche, as the superior who dumps Cox, and his boss (JK Simmons)—a cheerfully amoral commentary on all the main characters’ idiotic actions. The cast all seem to be having a great time, with only Swinton sadly underused. And while the turns by Clooney, Malkovich and Pitt are especially eye-catching, McDormand, Jenkins and Simmons aren’t far behind.
And as always with the Coens’ movies, this one is beautifully crafted, from the bookending satellite-view-to-earth-and-back pans through the marvelous tracking shots in the Langley corridors and the glossy fitness center sequences. Jess Gonchor’s production design is exquisite, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography crystalline, and Roderick Jaynes’ editing crisp and secure. Carter Burwell’s score, with its thumping bass, seems a little overbearing at first, but once you realize it’s taking its tune from the gym’s throbbing exercise music, it fits right in: this movie, is, after all, a flexing of the Coens’ cinematic muscles more than anything else.
The other Coen picture that “Burn After Reading” comes closest to in tone and structure is probably “Fargo.” But it’s not the equal of that quirky comic masterpiece any more than it is of “No Country for Old Men.” It lacks not only the earlier film’s clockwork precision in terms of plot, but also the surprising degree of depth that McDormand and William H. Macy brought to characters that, in lesser hands, would have been mere caricatures. Here the cast is excellent, but even they can’t raise the people they’re playing beyond cartoon status.
As far as live-action cartoons go, though, this is certainly an enjoyable one.