Here Comes the Judge
by Michael Koresky
Burn After Reading
Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, U.S., Focus Features
The Coens have spent their careers perfecting the anti-“Wrong Man” narrative. Whereas Hitchcock heightened suspense and audience-character identification by situating hapless, ordinary protagonists within extraordinary situations they seemingly have no control over, the Coens get off on watching their characters purposely enter into grandiose confrontations and violent circumstances. Once in over the heads, they dig deeper and deeper into what become their own graves. So recurrent is this template for the Coens, spread so evenly across genres from screwball comedy to nihilistic thriller (the spirit of willful intrusion, fueled by want, infects everyone from Nicolas Cage’s hillbilly wannabe dad in Raising Arizona to William H. Macy’s cash-strapped car salesman in Fargo to Billy Bob Thornton’s tobacco-ringed barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There, to of course, the ultimate passive transgressor, the Big Lebowski himself), that it’s amazing their films haven’t yet grown to feel entirely like retreads. Though we’re largely wedded to the points of view of all the above characters, the Coens keep us on the outside. This is why the major complaint Coen detractors have had for decades now is that they’re judging or mocking their own creations. Aside from the fact that within their particular brand of social satire (not far off from that of Kubrick’s, in which the terror of the modern world is often inextricable from its idiocies) broad caricatures are the order of the day, that simple criticism denies the occasional necessity of protagonist objectification. It makes for viewing that’s calculatedly discomfiting, in which easy audience identification is challenged, even sometimes squandered, in favor of, well, a broader view.
It’s easy to mark Joel and Ethan Coen as misanthropes; it’s difficult (and far more instructive) to try and find reflections of oneself in their films. In Burn After Reading, which surely will be called “heartless,” “wise-ass,” and “self-consciously clever” for the next few months before eventually being recouped, Hudsucker and Lebowski-style, as an endlessly rewatched, frivolous Coen fave, the filmmakers go as wide and toothy as ever, yet this time there’s no period or regional remoteness to fall back on. As always there’s an unavoidably superficial pleasure to watching the performances, but unlike their most recent comedies (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), all of which played as pure farce, the actors seem to be getting off on playing (admittedly grotesque) approximations of recognizable types rather than simply grotesques. There are no stunning transformations in this film (none of the actors burrow as profoundly into their role as Jeff Bridges did as The Dude), but many of the actors are cast memorably to their strengths—George Clooney as lascivious and paranoid; John Malkovich as inward and pretentious; Brad Pitt as chowderheaded—and there’s an immense appeal in watching these major stars slip around in the Coens’ less than flattering muck.
As Chad, a dimwitted personal trainer for the Washington D.C. fitness club Hardbodies who comes across a CD containing what seem to be top secret CIA files, Pitt is hardly convincing in any conventional sense, but he also provides the heart of the film and its biggest genuine laughs. This is not simply because Pitt seems willing and able to contort his own image (that’s more the type of reverse self-congratulation that’s become Clooney’s stock in trade), but because he hits every comic beat with a dazzling, unfettered clownishness. Judging from his work here, it’s easy to believe that he knows this type of body-conscious twit (fawning, oblivious) and relishes the opportunity to send it up. In this performance, Pitt turns his beauty into a stretchable mask: sensual lips twisted into flapping duck bills, upturned nose widened into two vapid, cavernous holes. When Chad, with the help of his plastic surgery–obsessed coworker, Linda (Frances McDormand), tracks down the source of the suspected leak, heavy drinking ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (Malkovich), and proceeds to try and blackmail him for a “reasonable” amount of cash, we’re never rooting for him, or really identifying at all, but since Pitt’s imitation of naiveté is a sincere form of flattery, we can’t help but enjoy following him on his merry way.
What Burn After Reading happily reinstates to the Coen craft, after a series of films that seemed made up solely of flat, affected line readings (Hanks’s forced anachronisms in The Ladykillers; the shrill attempt at Hawksian repartee in Intolerable Cruelty), is the pleasure of the throwaway mannerism. This film may be plot heavy—and there’s a satisfying catharsis that occurs when that narrative begins to snap together, or rather close in on its characters—but the most memorable moments are nearly tossed-off: Pitt trying to maintain debonair cool in an awkward suit and tie while fumbling with a dorky bike helmet and ear-buds; Clooney’s ex-secret service agent Harry Pfarrer gracelessly crunching on a clumsy bit of cheese and cracker at a posh soiree; Malkovich’s hilariously Francophile pronunciation of the word “memoir.” There’s no question that each of these characters is mocked, especially Harry, a sex-addicted, adulterous miscreant whose desperate need for female physical attention (and specifically, his affair with Cox’s frigid wife, played by Tilda Swinton, mostly underutilized, save one fantastically cruel short scene in which she comes across as the World’s Meanest Pediatrician) inadvertently derails Chad and Linda’s best laid plans with Amtrak force. Yet is it scruples we’re looking for here, or something more sinister but no less a part of us? Chad and Linda (or Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss or Cage’s H.I. McDunnough) are completely unchecked, operating without rules or sense in a world that will never let them succeed at their idiotic goals—and there’s something goofily beautiful about that attempted transgression, even if it comes from a place of bald-faced stupidity. And it’s immensely preferable to the Gumpian brand of movie moronism, in which one passively floats along on the waves of history, never fighting back against a firmly entrenched system.
In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill didn’t get in over his head by trying to opt out of a quotidian existence or believe the road to financial independence was through hair-brained extortion, but rather by being caught in a web that had already been circling around him. Thornhill’s case of mistaken identity (rather than flagrantly taunt the CIA, he’s believed, by a horde of nasty spies, to be an agent himself) might resonate more with us innocents, but Chad and Linda’s unprecedented, nonsensical hubris is ticklishly shocking. And rather than try to make their band of nitwits more relatable by tamping down the misbehavior, the Coens escalate the comic tension to expertly revolting degrees. Certainly the case could be made that Burn After Reading shows an unhealthy amount of contempt, both for its audience, as evidenced by its climactic tell-not-show narrative wrap-up that’s almost as purposely satisfaction-denying a denouement as that of No Country for Old Men, and for its principals (McDormand’s wide-eyed, love-starved, oft-humiliated basket case, Linda, is here the Coens’ most blatant dumping pile). But that contempt reflects a fairly palpable overall sense of disillusionment; here none of the decisions made by those in power (or those who would care to steal it) are fueled by anything other than libido, revenge, or greed. And by refusing to align us with any of the characters in their misbegotten pursuits, we ourselves necessarily become the only sane, moral protagonists. Then, is it so terrible that the light at the end of the tunnel is us, laughing?