You can take that title in a number of ways. As spy jargon, of course–an order to protect top-secret information by ensuring that no eyes but your own ever will see it. Or as a spectacular critical rebuke, to a document so aggressively disposable that the disposal itself should be aggressive, punitive, scorching. Or maybe just as a warning, that reading the thing will give you some kind of terrible rash.
In any case, Burn After Reading, the new comedy from writer-producer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, is well titled. It’s fair to call it a grim farce about vanity in an age of constant surveillance, but that might imply more ambition than does the movie itself.
An alcoholic, apparently complacent C.I.A. analyst, played by John Malkovich, gets pushed out of his job. Then he gets pushed out of his marriage. His wife’s an icy pediatrician (Tilda Swinton), who’s having an affair with a fidgety federal marshal (George Clooney), who can’t manage his appetite for women but can boast (in just such a way as to telegraph future plot turns) that he’s never discharged his weapon in 20 years of service.
And before poor Malkovich can even figure out how to begin his tell-all memoir (or, in his character’s affected pronunciation, “mem-wah”), he even gets pushed out of his stately Georgetown home. All the while he gets pushed around–or, well, nudged, at least–by a pair of would-be blackmailers, played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who find a disc of inchoate notes toward the mem-wah on a locker room floor at the gym where they work.
These two seem about as suited to extortion as their victim seems suited to a second career as an author: namely, not at all. She’s only in it to raise money for the cosmetic-surgery overhaul she hopes will improve her online dating prosects; he’s in it presumably because he’s a shallow dummy who needs a hobby.
And off they all go. It’s a regression from the Coens’ fine, award-laden adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, but to some eyes perhaps a return to form: the standard-issue Coen comedy, full of resigned nihilism and profanity and some violence, with the usual myopically self-interested cartoon characters to whom the filmmakers mostly condescend. For one thing, the movie rudely aborts every one of its characters’ arcs–some, like Richard Jenkins’ thankless part as McDormand’s boss and secret admirer, before they’ve even really begun.
With so many clever comedic moments handled as throwaways, Burn After Reading seems so proud of its restraint that it gets distracted from the business of actually building up to something. Then it just makes a joke of its own distraction. Thankfully, at least, this last duty falls to a perfectly cast J.K. Simmons as a perplexed C.I.A. chief, who gamely delivers a short shot of deadpan brilliance.
Otherwise, it’s all about Hey, look, we’re in a Coen brothers movie! and the cast giving their star personas the shabby-chic treatment–be it Clooney and Pitt sending up the chummy suavity of their Ocean’s movies (Pitt working a little too hard to indicate that he gets the joke); or Clooney and Swinton glibly goofing off after seriously facing off in Michael Clayton; or Malkovich, last in Washington as a similarly affronted and volcanically angry assassin blowing back on the government that trained him in In the Line of Fire, and here turning the paranoid inside-the-powerbroker-potboiler thriller inside out.
His is by far the most delectable performance on offer here, and it’s too appropriate that he plays a guy who’s let down by and fed up with all around him, and who deserves better. Indeed, Burn After Reading is no No Country, but it’s no Big Lebowski either. Like the meaning of its title, its stature within the Coen continuum is for you to decide.