Sunday night I watched the latest Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading (2008), an offbeat and at times hilarious send-up of the paranoid contemporary spy thriller. Yeah, this is my kind of movie!
I would venture to say that if you like other Coen Brothers movies, you’ll probably like this one. I found it impeccably crafted from a visual standpoint, and cleverly scripted with a finely honed dark comic message. It’s uniformly well acted, with most of the performers occasionally going over-the-top, but generally everyone straddles the line nicely between deadpan and flat-out wacky, a style that suits the material. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt have perhaps the most egregious moments of overdoing it, but they’re also both really fun to watch; meanwhile, George Clooney seems to walk the tightrope the most deftly. As usual with the Coens, even the “throwaway” roles are memorable — McDormand’s doctor, Tilda Swinton’s lawyer, and especially the two befuddled CIA suits (J.K. Simmons and David Rasche), whose comic performances are brilliantly understated.
I’m actually a pretty big fan of the type of film this one is lampooning — the twisty, convoluted espionage caper — and I think it worked all the more for me because of that. It nails the atmosphere of those films and spoofs it simultaneously, smartly poking fun at the familiar tropes and cliches. (See in particular a brilliantly edited sequence of paranoid double-takes from Clooney late in the film…)
My only real complaint about this one is its clipped and somewhat unsatisfying ending; a little bit too much is resolved offscreen, so that the excellent final scene — essentially the payoff — feels less earned than it could have been. That may well have been deliberate — after all, it’s kind of a much-ado-about-nothing scenario, so why not diminish everything’s importance at the end? Still, I think that ultimate moment could have used a little more lead-in.
Anyway, overall this one worked for me, both as a spy movie satire and as a dark, sickly funny commentary on bumbling American self-importance at every level of society, skewering superficiality, greed, vanity, and self-interest with joyous abandon. Easy targets, granted, and the relentless awfulness of these people and their behavior might alienate some folks — but hey, pushes my buttons!