The fairly recent Cohen brothers’ movie, Burn After Reading is quite a strange one. Characters are introduced at a rapid-fire pace, each managing to be hilariously quirky without seeming quite real. John Malkovich plays an extremely irritable ex-CIA employee who quits in a huff after being moved to a less important department. Tilda Swenson plays his coldly deceptive wife, who is engaged in an affair with George Clooney, another CIA employee who is about equally obsessed with jogging and sex. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt play two workers at a fitness club who stumble upon a CD full of what appears to be classified government “shit.” If these descriptions of the characters seem to you more like humorous sketches than people, you might just be a redneck. Or you might just be right. They are characters in the most basic sense of the word, possessing certain characteristics and quirks, but no real depth or history. It’s not really possible to empathize with a single one. This is tolerable partly because it seems intentional, and partly because the actors playing these characters do such an entertaining job. The movie itself is sort of like the Big Lebowski in its meandering plotline, one so unpredictable that it makes little sense to say that it has “twists.” The difference is that this film picks up where “No Country for Old Men” left off in its unadorned and often unexpected displays of graphic violence that seem to be the Coen Brothers’ calling card. The stark violence doesn’t really add to the comedy of the film, but it manages not to take away from it either. It’s kind of just there. Ultimately the problem lies not with the comedy or the violence, but the shallowness of the story these elements are used to express. Burn After Reading doesn’t have the joyous, dreamlike quality of The Big Lebowski nor the excruciating suspense of No Country for Old Men. In fact, without a central engrossing character or message, Burn After Reading doesn’t seem like a movie so much as a writing exercise that accidentally made it to the screen.
All this makes the film seem bad, but it wasn’t really bad at all, just disappointing. At the end of the movie, the director of the CIA advises the assistant who has been reporting all the crazy goings-on to just “try and forget all this ever happened.” This advice is clearly meant for the audience as well, to assure them that the directors knew this film was utterly mediocre and it’s ok to forget it. As much as I appreciate the gesture, I’d appreciate it more if they’d said that to themselves earlier, and burnt after writing.