As usual, if you haven’t seen the film and want to, it’s probably best not to read this post.
The Coen brothers like to make movies about greed. Whether it’s the sizable sums of Fargo and The Big Lebowski or the more modest returns of Blood Simple, cheating, stealing, and generally playing fast and loose with the promise of wealth are hallmarks of Coen characters. Hell, they even made a movie about people stealing a baby. Come to think of it, I can’t come up with one Coen movie where money isn’t a central point of the plot– even Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, which don’t feature theft or cons outright, are still about the ethics of business, and how wealth and class interact.
So even though No Country for Old Men was a very serious film for the Coens, it wasn’t necessarily a departure from their major themes. In fact, it was almost a distillation of them: once Josh Brolin steals that money, you know he’s doomed sooner or later, and the outright admission of that point doesn’t detract at all from the pleasure of watching it.
Burn After Reading is a very strange thing: it’s No Country, recast in an upper-crust setting and, somewhat strangely, as a comedy. The Brolin stand-ins are the even more incompetent Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, as numbskull gym employees; filling in for Anton Chigurh is the equally foolish John Malkovich, a retired CIA agent whose memoirs the pair hold for ransom. As in the previous film, mix two unacquainted enemies, throw in a swath of supporting characters, add greed, and let the sparks fly.
The strange thing is that despite the film’s comedic tone, the stakes are no less lofty. People do die in Burn After Reading, a surprising fact that simultaneously elevates the comedy and makes the already shaggy-dog story even harder to read. Usually, the Coens can’t be matched for tonal consistency, but this movie definitely has some evenness problems: it’s equal parts spy-movie parody, Bourne-style shoot ’em up, and Lebowski-flavored bizarro comedy. The Coens also typically love regionalisms (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou), but this film has few. Maybe it’s because it takes place in D.C., a place where many people live but where few people are from; maybe it’s because the cast itself is so varied, from ultra-slick Tilda Swinton (with original accent!) to surfer-aping Brad Pitt to the always-unplaceable Malkovich (who further confuses the proceedings with some odd accent shifts and a smattering of too-perfect French pronunciation). It’s a weird thing to see a Coen film with little to no sense of place, and the background feels perfunctory rather than illuminating. Other than its involvement of a lot of government agencies, the plot of the film could take place in any city, and the variance from No Country‘s new-West setting is probably the biggest difference between the two films.
Burn After Reading also has a surprisingly large amount of throwaway gags that add up to nothing: Clooney’s character repeatedly eats foods he may or may not be allergic to, and there’s a bizarre number of appearances by the actor Dermot Mulroney and his fake film, Coming Up Daisy. (Mulroney is a somewhat failed rom-com actor, best known for My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I am utterly clueless as to why the Coens feature him so heavily, other than the fact that his name is really funny-sounding.) The title (probably a parody of the CIA memoir Burn Before Reading) also has nothing to do with the film’s content.
There is a wonderful and weird thing about Burn After Reading, though, in that it features its own Tommy Lee Jones-style Greek chorus. It consists of a CIA agent and his boss, played brilliantly by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, and their observations are as trenchantly hilarious as Jones’ were poignant. They only have two scenes together, but those five minutes pretty much make the movie.
The funny part is that their conclusions are still the same as No Country‘s: greed is deadly, violence is senseless, and there seems to be no way to prevent either of them from sprouting up again and again. It’s the same lesson the Coens have been trying to teach us for over two decades, and it probably won’t be long before they find yet another innovative way to present it.