Two Minute Review: Burn After Reading (2008)
Burn After Reading may be the most depressing comedy I’ve ever seen. I left the theater in a daze. I wanted a shower. I wondered how the Coen Bros. could sleep at night. I wondered how they could keep from blowing their brains out with such a view of humanity.
It’s not that their characters are greedy, grasping, callous and stupid. It’s the smallness of what they’re greedy about and grasping after. Even tragedy elevates humanity because it implies a greatness from which we can fall. This thing? Smallness everywhere. Smallness overwhelms.
So Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) gets canned from the CIA for a minor breach and decides to write his memoirs, always pronounced with a self-important, nails-on-the-chalkboard lilt, and his wife, the coldest of pediatricians (Tilda Swinton), who’s having an affair with FBI man Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), refuses to understand, or care, and files for divorce. Through this process the unfinished memoir winds up in the hands of a pair of gym-club idiots: Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda wants cosmetic surgery to stay in the dating game, doesn’t understand why her insurance won’t pay for it, and decides to blackmail Cox to get the money. Chad? What does he want? He’s such an idiot, such a beautiful idiot, he doesn’t even have a plan like everyone else. This makes him my favorite character in the film. At least he’s not grasping after smallness. He’s just gloriously stupid.
Contemplating what everyone else in the film is grasping after can only drive you into depression. Cox wants retribution against the CIA but doesn’t have the discipline to finish his book and winds up half-drunk and watching “Family Feud” each early afternoon. Litzke wants cosmetic surgery — a temporary salve for a not-pretty woman. Pfarrer uses Internet dating to sleep around on his wife, with women who aren’t even attractive, and then crumbles when his wife, with an affair of her own, files for divorce. He’s also happily building something secret in his basement. Turns out to be a laughably pornographic, sad little machine. It’s almost a relief when people begin dying.
Yes, Burn After Reading is well-made. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have had the effect it had on me. But there’s no one in it with the smallest amount of grace. The Big Lebowski at least had the Dude, but here the Coens took him away, even the possibility of him, and left us bereft.
I’ve always considered myself a bit of a misanthrope but now I know: Next to the Coens I’m a freaking Pollyanna.
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