No one does crime comedies like the Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen have certainly made an art out of it. This minor adventure, however, which was again written and directed by both men, is the lesser of them all.
The Coens in their crime comedies delight in dragging their audiences through an odd caper where things never go well for the criminals, or really for any of the main participants. We usually laugh at these ridiculous Midwestern or southern characters and how their plans always fall to pieces, typically ending with a bullet and a lot of bloodshed.
BURN AFTER READING is not that much different. The film, however, is totally pointless. Yet, it's unfair of me to say that because it would have to presuppose that any Coen film had a purpose.
Fargo (1996) really set the standard for that. That film's finale included Frances McDormand's character looking into the camera and basically telling us that there was no sense, no point to anything you just witnessed. Yet, the Coens would have us laugh at it.
A similar thing happens in No Country for Old Men (2007) when Tommy Lee Jones ponders the purpose of the events he investigates, really reiterating the pointlessness of the violence, which ordinarily the Coens would treat as frivolity.
In this film, J.K. Simmons (Juno and Spider-Man) who plays a CIA superior asks a question, which speaks to what I asked half-way-through this movie. What are we to learn here? What is the point of all of this?
Some other critics have said that this movie is a spy spoof, pure and simple. The film takes place in Washington, DC, and one character is in fact a CIA agent, but that's hardly enough. For something to be a spoof, one has to spend some considerable time on that which it's spoofing.
The Coens divert us off the CIA agent, played by John Malkovich, so much as to lessen even his role in the story and to make you forget or, at least, not care that his character was even in the espionage business.
Yes, this is an ensemble piece, and not one specific star vehicle, but the trouble that Steven Soderbergh ran into with the Ocean's Eleven movies, the Coens encounter here. The trouble is that this film quickly becomes the George Clooney and Brad Pitt show, despite both those actors having what amount to supporting roles. But, their mere presence and dominance make you really lose sight and interest in anyone else.
Clooney plays a slick, smooth, handsome womanizer, a real stretch of acting for him. His bright smile, good looks, and sexcapades only become an annoyance, and good for only one real, out-loud laugh, regarding his character Harry's horny invention. The rest of the time, Clooney is nothing more than a distraction. The arc of his character is a let down and ultimately is taken nowhere. Again, I ask. What's the point?
In other reviews I've read, people talk about how Brad Pitt is a standout. Pitt's character is a loveable goof, one in the league of morons in this yarn, but he's so easily discarded that he might as well not have even existed.
Frances McDormand is the only true standout. She steals every scene she's in, even opposite Clooney and Pitt. McDormand plays Linda Litzke, a personal trainer at Hardbodies Fitness Center who desperately wants plastic surgeries for which her HMO won't pay. When a disc comes to her filled with what she thinks is super sensitive CIA info, she decides to blackmail the CIA agent for money to pay for her surgeries.
McDormand is hilarious, as she spiritizes another droll character, which she inhabits perfectly while walking in sync comedic step and amusing with every word and every look from her crow's-feet eyes. It's perhaps because McDormand is wife and sister-in-law to the Coen Brothers that her character is favored and allowed to shine.
The fates of all the characters here, which the Coens don't even bother to show us, represent some of the laziest writing and directing in the Coens' careers. In this effervescent world of theirs, there are no consequences for the actions of these characters. Everything is swept under the rug, which perhaps is meant to be a political metaphor for the actions of those in DC. Sadly, it's unsatisfying for an audience member to be left with at the end.
Were the Coens rushed to wrap up the film or merely keep it short, or is this the laziest work of the Coens' life? The two have been nominated several times for writing, but the last few films they've done have been adaptations or remakes. An original idea hasn't really come from them in about a decade. This one seems barely hatched.
The universal critical acclaim of No Country for Old Men and the #1 box office opening of this film will ensure people will continue to bow to the Coens' feet. For this effort, however, it's not deserved. The visuals aren't even that impressive. The cinematography is basic and lacks the magical chemistry of Roger Deakins.
Two Stars out of Five
Rated R for pervasive language and violence
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.