Are there any filmmakers working today as diverse as Joel and Ethan Coen? Ever since they followed their blood-soaked, noir-ish debut Blood Simple with the frankly insane Raising Arizona, the brothers sent a message that they weren’t going to be pigeonholed. It’s something they’ve maintained right throughout their impressive career. In the last few years they’ve given us three vastly different genres in as many films, with the Oscar-nominated Western, True Grit, a touching drama about a struggling folk singer with Inside Llewyn Davis, and their current madcap comedy Hail Caesar!
Burn After Reading, their 2008 black comedy was the follow-up to their Oscar-winning drama No Country For Old Men, and typically for the brothers, it couldn’t be more different. The plot follows a group of characters who could only ever exist in a Coen Brothers movie – a disgruntled former low-level CIA employee (John Malkovich), obsessed with writing his less than Earth-shattering memoirs; his unfaithful wife (Tilda Swinton); serial philander George Clooney; plastic surgery-obsessed gym employee Frances McDormand; and, in Brad Pitt, probably the dumbest character the brothers have ever created.
When a draft of Osborne Cox’s (Malkovich) memoirs falls into the hands of McDormand and Pitt, they attempt to sell it, to fund a series of operations she’s obsessed with having. This sets off a typically Coen-esque tragi-comic chain of events involving the CIA, Russians, copious bed-hopping and the most eye-wateringly uncomfortable chair you’ll ever lay eyes on.
The plot, by their standards is a little light, but ultimately that plays second fiddle to a collection of delightfully quirky characters, and an excellent cast. Pitt’s hilariously dumb, and given a good run for his money in the idiot stakes by Clooney (who the brothers seem to delight in casting in these type of roles). Malkovich is brilliantly pretentious. Coen regular (and wife of Joel Coen) McDormand adds another quirky character to her repertoire. Only the always excellent Tilda Swinton feels slightly short-changed in a thankless role.
There are a number of recurring themes and motifs that are consistent throughout their work, allowing disparate films to all retain the brother’s trademark style, including a gift for brilliant character names (with Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer the standout here); a propensity for sudden, unexpected moments of extreme violence; and copious, hilarious swearing (take a bow Malkovich). Resolving the fate of lead characters off-screen, something, which they experimented with in No Country For Old Men, is also revisited here, although to lesser effect.
For comic brilliance it never reaches the heights of The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona, but is considerably more accessible than much of their work. If you’re not familiar with the delights of two of the most entertaining, quirky filmmakers working today, Burn After Reading is an excellent introduction. If you’re a fan, Burn After Reading is mid-league Coens. Not one of their classics, but a consistently hilarious treat.
BURN AFTER READING (2008) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ETHAN COEN, JOEL COEN / SCREENPLAY: JOEL COEN, ETHAN COEN / STARRING: JOHN MALKOVICH, GEORGE CLOONEY, FRANCES McDORMAND, BRAD PITT / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW