We’ve been here before, both sitting back and on the edge of our seats to take in one of the Coen Bros. designated “killer comedies” in which we aren’t always sure whether to cackle or cringe. Central characters may be offed without warning, and nice folks may find themselves drowning in life’s genuinely dark side. Burn After Reading is a wild ride in which black comedy, thriller-style complexity, and sneaky parody elements all blend together. In this dizzying film, full of good people gone bad, bad people getting worse, and nearly no sympathetic characters, we don’t know who to root for, or when they might be abruptly killed off, just for the fun of it. And it is fun, if you have the right attitude, an open mind, and a cavalier taste for Coen-style comedy.
For avid fans of the Coen’s oeuvre, Burn can make for a fascinating study in contrasts and recurring tics and patterns. For normal, well-adjusted people, such obsessive observation must just seem like feasting on trivia. But diehard and casual fans alike may agree that Burn, while not a true classic in the filmography, is great nasty fun, dusted with the stuff of inebriating absurdity.
In a way, Burn is one of those lighter, pressure-release projects that comes after a more difficult film. Their wild Barton Fink was reportedly a way of getting over the draining process of making Miller’s Crossing. And Burn comes hot on the heels of the brothers’ most profound artwork to date, the mystical and sometimes sobering No Country for Old Men.
As usual, the Coen touch includes great cinematic flair. Sight and sound factors are well attended to, from the inspired Emmanuel Lubezki’s sharp cinematography to the great, juicy work from the Coens’ right hand film composer, Carter Burwell. Acting-wise, naturally, Frances McDormand is wonderful and George Clooney is a hoot as a satirically anti-suave swinger. But the scene-stealers in this ensemble are the foul-mouthed and emotionally fit-to-burst John Malkovich as a bitter spy given his walking papers, and, believe it not, Brad Pitt-who’s always at his best when playing handsome dumbshits.
Yes, we’ve seen it before, but the Coens once again manage to keep things fresh and surprising, applying joy buzzers and noninvasive torture devices to various parts of the psyche.