Joel and Ethan Coen return to their roots of dark comedy with Burn After Reading. After having made a significant yet hugely successful departure from that realm with No Country for Old Men, Burn instead attempts to turn the comedic genre on its head once again in a manner reminiscent of 1996’s Fargo. The sour becomes the sweet. The stupid becomes the smart.
Yet unlike those classics, Burn can only attempt. With a promisingly-stacked cast including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand, the film ends up being to movies what the Yankees are (currently) to baseball: a powerhouse on paper only. Like the Yankees, the film itself falls just short of its true potential.
Pitt and McDormand star as Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke, two gym employees who come across what they deem to be important CIA memoirs. Those memoirs, while cherished for their sentimental value by rightful owner Osbourne Cox (as played by Malkovich), are held for ransom by these two hilariously “intelligent” characters. To complicate matters even more, a love triangle between Cox’s wife Katie (as played by Swinton), her lover Harry (as played by Clooney) and Harry’s separate female interest Linda forces the documents to bounce from one pair of hands to another.
What makes the film really amusing lies in the question about what intelligence really is. At points we see even the seemingly least intelligent characters like Chad and Linda outsmart the rest, while at the same time we see the educated elite act without thinking. Half of the people that come across the documents, in fact, have no idea of what makes said files important. Rather, they are simply willing to risk everything for what remains to be seen.
But where then does the film go wrong? Such a discussion is partially a matter of personal taste in humor, but I will nonetheless continue by saying that I cannot laugh at death when death is not even mildly deserved. And, without spoiling the film, I can guarantee that death plays a leading role in this one. Thus, in its attempt to make death a laughing matter, I can only help but feel like I missed the joke.
Most egregious, though, is an undeniable misstep by the filmmakers: Burn too ambitiously attempts to reinvent the wheel. By being so unconventional in both humor and structure of storyline, I find it hard to remember much of what made the film a good one in many other ways.
Still, there were good things about the film. That I am sure of. Whether or not I can remember what they were exactly is another story. But to its credit, Burn After Reading is a daringly unconventional dark comedy from some of the most respected writers, actors, producers and directors in the business, and for that I recommend it. A lot of talented visions were involved in this project, and they obviously deserve the attention. Burn After Reading is playing at the Hamilton Theater now.