If there's a knock on Joel and Ethan Coen, the writer-director brothers who otherwise have enjoyed a quarter-century of critical acclaim, it's that they betray a condescension, almost a contempt, for the people they've created. From the lover-killers in the Coens' first feature, Blood Simple, to the babynappers in Raising Arizona and a raft of Minnesotans in Fargo, all manner of desperately striving oafs populate the Coen gallery of film art. The brothers have been very smart about their characters' being very stupid.
That changed last year with No Country for Old Men, their faithful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel about one man who steals $2 million in drug money and another man, or monster, who chases him. Both characters were resourceful in the tradition of Hollywood heroes and villains; neither one blithered. The plot carefully built its tensions right up to a climax that confused a lot of viewers--but that too showed fidelity of the film to its source novel. The Coens' entente with genre conventions earned Oscars for Best Picture, Screenplay and Supporting Actor (for Javier Bardem as the pursuer). Those mulish brothers had proved they knew how to play a game appreciated by the film establishment and the audience; No Country was by far their biggest box-office success.
But it's not their game, which is to keep moviegoers off balance. With Burn After Reading, the Coens are back to their old tricks. And this one is either such a cunning conundrum or such a lame jape that despite the star power of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, almost no one will get the joke.
The CIA has elbowed one of its veteran analysts--starchy, sulfur-mouthed Osborne Cox (John Malkovich)--out of the agency. In revenge, Osborne starts composing his memoirs, a computer disc of which falls into the hands of two gym employees: lovelorn Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and her goofball pal Chad Feldheimer (Pitt). Linda is having an affair with federal Marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who's also been servicing Osborne's icy wife (Tilda Swinton). When Chad and Linda contact Osborne to return the disc, Harry stumbles into the deal. Plot thickens; nooses tighten.
Calling All Knuckleheads
So far, so familiar. Except that these people are, in varying degrees, idiots, engaged in an enterprise that ought to be left to the higher IQed. The Coens' tactic could be a caustic commentary on the ineptitude of those employed to keep the secrets of the U.S. government (Osborne and Harry are figures of, respectively, raw bluster and empty charm), if it weren't that virtually everyone in the movie operates on seriously diminished candlepower. Linda believes that her advancing age has rendered her so unattractive that she seeks transfiguration through plastic surgery.
As for Chad, he's so blithely unknowing that he's a relief from the film's strivers and connivers. The walk Pitt gives him, appropriate less for a guest on Dancing with the Stars than for a heretofore unclassified creature on Animal Planet, is the coolest thing in the picture--tied with the portentous percussion in Carter Burwell's underscoring, which in its pile-driving fashion builds suspense that never pays off.
The movie is at one with its characters: all shiny surfaces and slick camera choreography, it looks so smart it can fool you into thinking something clever is going on or will start in just a minute. Instead, the movie devolves until it practically dissolves, and the only laughter you might hear is from the guys behind the camera.
The Coens are deadpan pranksters; editing their pictures under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes is just the mildest of their jokes. So it's entirely possible that Burn After Reading is some multifilm concept comedy--that No Country for Old Men was a feature-length diversionary tactic from the Coens' strategy of trying the patience of their most dedicated admirers. They started with that aimless farce The Ladykillers and bring the geste to fruition with their latest enervating caper. If this is so, they've managed a pretty complex joke, and it's on you. Too bad it isn't funny.