"You are one of the morons I've been fighting all my life," John Malkovich bellows at a climactic moment in the new Coen Bros. film, "But this time I win." As it turns out, the character he addresses is one of the least deserving of that label in the story, though one might argue that putting himself in the predicament we see might make him one. At the same time, Malkovich's character, the disgruntled former CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, has been presented as the sort who rails against morons while being one himself. He has a lot to rail against in this movie, which means we're back in familiar Coen territory after their sojourn in Cormac McCarthy's country.
I guessed that I would probably like Burn After Reading after reading David Denby's negative review in The New Yorker. Denby sums up the middlebrow case against the Coens: they are misanthropes, contemptuous toward their own characters, mocking the suffering of their creations with smug self-satisfaction. "The Coens have often worked out their private sense of amusement and disdain onscreen," Denby writes, "In [their] movies, one could detect the brothers laughing at a world of fools who never understand what's happening to them and mess everything up."
Denby's favorite amongst the Coen movies seems to be Raising Arizona, their second feature, whose protagonists the reviewer describes as "sweet dumb clucks." Denby requires sweetness in his movies. "Even black comedy requires that the filmmakers love someone," he concludes. Here he expresses his own preference, but it isn't an objective principle of film criticism. Many reviewers have an emotional or philosophical problem with "cold" directors like the Coens or Stanley Kubrick, but I've never felt it necessary to empathize with characters in order to be entertained at the movies, and I think that a denial of empathy on the part of writers or directors can sometimes signal seriousness of purpose.
I think the thing that bugs people about the Coens is that they actually take stupidity seriously. There's almost always a movie playing at the multiplex with a stupid protagonist, but most of these movies ask us to identify with the fool, the infantile male who acts out, and root for him to prevail over obstacles. We're presumably supposed to regard them as a mirror of our own occasional awkwardness and empathize accordingly. These are the movies that actually show complacency toward stupidity, while the Coens portray stupidity as a destructive force. Burn After Reading is a counterpart to Fargo, which subverts the Pulp Fiction-era crime genre by portraying the criminals as idiots whose stupidity undermines all their schemes. The new film does the same thing for the espionage thriller genre. We get the usual desperate race to discover information, the apparent revelations that "everything you know is wrong" and people aren't who you thought they were, and a pounding score by Carter Burwell that treats the film as a countdown to Armageddon -- but all in the service of a story driven, and then driven into the ground, by stupidity. It's a genre parody, but not in the literal-minded Mad-magazine style of the Scary Movie series. It attacks the entire genre by showing what would happen if you plugged in people who are less than hyper-competent or heroically resourceful.
But I feel reluctant to give the movie too much credit. From the title itself to the film's abrupt wrap-up, there's a throwaway quality to Burn After Reading. You get the sense that the Coens just gave up at a certain point and shot a scene with J. Jonah -- I mean J. K. Simmons as a CIA honcho learning the fates of the protagonists and dismissing them with sardonic indifference. The brothers may have discovered that they couldn't go back to their standard style after the rigors of No Country For Old Men, or the whole project may have been a lark, an opportunity to spend time with cronies like George Clooney and Mrs. Coen herself, Frances McDormand -- something like a Burt Reynolds film circa 1980, but with a brain. Whatever the reason, the whole of Burn is almost purposefully less than the sum of its parts, but these deserve their due.
The four lead performances, by Clooney, Malkovich, McDormand and Brad Pitt, are heroically funny. Malkovich spends the entire film, or all the parts he appears in, in a conniption fit, while McDormand is hysterically monomaniacal in her others-endangering recklessness. Clooney lets it all hang out in a slow-motion paranoid meltdown, while Pitt reminds us that he can be a comic genius when he wants to. Skeptics may scoff that Pitt playing an idiot is no stretch, but there's a difference between being an idiot and being funny, and once he got going, Pitt could get laughs just by opening his mouth, almost by just standing there. He plumbed the breadth of shallowness in his entire performance, well earning the "and" that distinguishes him from the rest of the cast.
This review may prove useful if I can persuade people that the actors make Burn After Reading worth seeing even if the film's ending is like an air bag blowing up in your face. I'll leave the subject with a reminder that the movie is a comedy, and with the assurance, at least if your sensibility is like mine, that whatever its structural flaws, you'll find a lot to laugh at, if not a lot to like.