George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt star in Burn After Reading, a sour black comedy from the Coen Brothers whose Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men in 2007 was one of the highpoints of their career. Every Coen brothers film is an event, but there's nothing on show here except the chilly proficiency of these sibling creators.
Yes film school students should study its clever script and immaculate editing, should trawl over its astonishing sense of craft. But the profound sense of the rotten on show here, of rotten people doing rotten, decaying things, may not be to everyone’s taste just now.
John Malkovich plays the disgruntled former CIA operative, a mean-minded horrible drunk, who decides to take his grievances out on his former employees by penning a tell-all memoir. The memoir falls into the hands of his wife Tilda Swinton, who is secretly trying to divorce him just as she carries on an affair with George Clooney, and the memoirs in turn accidentally fall into the hands of some gym employees. There’s a bouncy, funny little performance from Pitt, who is the only ray of sunshine going in this grimy little world. In cahoots with Frances McDormand, a fellow worker obsessed with getting plastic surgery, they try to blackmail Malkovich by trying to sell his memoirs to the Russians.
This is a film about something that is never really quite there and events that never really quite happens. It’s about toxic narcissism, sexual delinquency, and middle-class hypocrisy. By the end the CIA bosses who have been monitoring just what is going on dismiss the whole sequence of events, including a murder, as a ‘clusterfuck’ but little else of very great importance – at which point the movie ends.
The Coen Brothers have created some great comedies – The Big Lebowski being the best-known – plus some brilliant thrillers with comedic elements including Fargo. But this film reminds me of their only actual misfire, The Ladykillers from back in 2004. Burn After Reading has no pretensions towards great entertainment or making great statements; its quite self-evidentially a minor work, a novella rather than a novel.
I’m going to try and forget about the nasty taste this film left in my mouth.