Ten years ago, Joel and Ethan Coen followed up their acclaimed, Oscar-winning Fargo with The Big Lebowski, a nutty romp that was barely loved by audiences and critics (but has since become a cult phenomenon). Now, after winning the Best Picture Oscar for No Country For Old Men, their bleak neo-western, the Coen Brothers once again have tossed aside gritty in favor of giddy with Burn After Reading.
Frances McDormand stars as a loopy fitness center worker who joins her even dumber co-worker (a hilarious Brad Pitt) in a blackmailing scheme involving a government agent (John Malkovich). A buffoonish ladies’ man (George Clooney), befuddled Russians and erotic furniture somehow also figure into all this.
This mixed bag comes off as an excuse for the cast and filmmakers to goof around and have fun. Yet despite some real laughs and enjoyable plot complications, it doesn’t come together. Burn tries for the serio-comic tone of Fargo but winds up on the hit and miss level of The Ladykillers, a less renowned Coen effort. The Someone Who Is In Over Their Head Has Something That Bad People Want angle has been done more skillfully by many directors, including the brothers themselves.
The film is peppered with amusingly hammy performances by nearly every cast member (and as violent as you’d expect from the Coens); it’s a particular kick to watch Pitt—one of the coolest actors on the planet—playing an uncool doofus who tries way too hard to be suave (Pitt’s work is the movie’s biggest highlight). Clooney gamely mugs his way through his role, McDormand goes into chirpy overdrive (a little of which goes a long way) and Malkovich gives the best performance as an overlooked agent who is fed up with the idiots surrounding him.
Carter Burwell’s heavily percussive music score suggests a Jason Bourne-like thriller and, like the rest of the movie, seems to be kidding audience expectations. Burn is all over the place—sometimes grim, often farcical, occasionally riveting but mostly just silly. The pat ending underlines what a lark this was meant to be, but audiences may feel cheated by the lack of a real resolution. While it can be entertaining, most involved are coasting and have done better. MTW