Pity poor Joel and Ethan Coen. You make a masterpiece or two, and people start expecting it from you every time out.
Let’s face it: Part of being a great artist in any field is the burden of high expectations. If you’re Bob Dylan, and you produce an album that’s merely good stuff by any other standard, the pundits will be lined up to shrug, “Meh, it’s no Blonde on Blonde.” But if some middling pop hack churns out something that manages merely not to suck, suddenly everyone’s ears are perked up like the RCA Victor dog.
And in contemporary cinema, that’s what you face if you’re the Coens. Jon Favreau funnels Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man performance into a halfway competent comic-book movie, and he’s the second coming of Steven Spielberg. Burn After Reading, on the other hand…well, it’s no No Country for Old Men. Over 23 years of filmmaking, the Coens’ worst movies—The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty—have been better than anything 90 percent of filmmakers will ever make. Discovery—or its cousin, the comeback—makes so much more interesting a story than sustained quality.
Yet here the brothers are again, turning out another goofy, predictably unpredictable caper about people in over their heads. It all begins with Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a hot-tempered CIA analyst whose demotion inspires his resignation, and his plans for a tell-all memoir. But the notes for Cox’s book wind up on the same disk as financial information for his wife Katie’s (Tilda Swinton) planned divorce proceedings, which all inadvertently winds up in the hands of two D.C.-area fitness center employees. For Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), the information could be the key to paying for the cosmetic surgery she longs for; and for her co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt)…well, it’s something cool to do.
The tangled plot also involves Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury Department marshal and Katie’s lover, and Ted (Richard Jenkins), Linda’s secretly smitten supervisor—and the tangle really proves to be part of Burn After Reading’s elusive appeal. No one here knows the full story behind anyone else’s motivations, and a lot of the time they don’t even really care. In a pair of great scenes involving Cox’s former boss (David Rasche) and his own CIA superior (University of Montana alumnus J.K. Simmons), the latter does his best to figure out the easiest way to end the whole mess. In a sly jab at the bureaucratic mindset, he’s not interested in solving the problem; he just wants the problem to go away.
It’s a much more pointed piece of satire than the Coens are going to get credit for, in part because it’s not delivered with No Country for Old Men’s bone-weary gravitas. This is the Coens working in their absurdist key, still finding notes in Clooney as a comic actor that no one else manages; it should be clear by now that there’s no reason for Clooney ever to work with a director besides the Coens and Steven Soderbergh. Perhaps it was his pal Clooney that convinced Brad Pitt to sign on, allowing Pitt yet another opportunity—in a performance of loose-limbed, vacantly smiling hilarity—to prove that he’s truly gifted when he’s got his tongue in his cheek. Throw in McDormand’s role as a woman whose lonely-hearts desperation drives events—along with other characters’ emotionally charged irrational choices—and you’ve got yet another typically terrific Coens cast.
With notable exceptions: Malkovich and Swinton. While Being John Malkovich a decade ago certainly proved that Malkovich can revel in the bizarre, he never seems comfortable in the Coens’ out-sized world. Cox’s perpetual state of f-bomb-dropping fury may be a fundamental engine of the script, but Malkovich, the consummate Method man, doesn’t know how to play even loudness in a bigger-than-life way. And Swinton similarly finds an awkward spot between ice-queen caricature and layered complexity. The set of actorly tools these two bring doesn’t unlock these particular characters, and as a result the Coxes shrink into the background.
But I guess Malkovich and Swinton can be forgiven for not quite “getting” the Coens. We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another—and never more so than when we’re ready to dump on one of their good movies for not being one of their great movies.