Burn After Reading
Burn After Reading, a ‘comedy thriller’, is the latest Coen brothers movie, their first after No Country for Old Men, and it is a very, very hard film to like. I wanted to like it, I tried to like it, I strained to like it with all the fibres of my being bar two — they’ve gone off on a mini-break to the Cotswolds — but I could not, and I think I know why. It’s just not any good. It’s arch, inelegant, lazy, unaffecting and has George Clooney doing that thing he does which involves a great deal of face-pulling coupled with many looks of saucer-eyed surprise. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t sleep with George if asked, because I still so would, but I might feel obliged to give him a pep talk post-coitally. ‘George,’ I would say, ‘a comedy performance doesn’t just mean acting funny. Pull yourself together, man!’ By the way, I feel I should point out, so you don’t make the same mistake that I did, that the ‘Reading’ in the title is what you do when you have, say, a book to hand, rather than ‘Reading’ as in the town, although I know what I’d burn after that. Swindon!
This has a terrific cast, sure enough, starring not just Clooney, but also John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand but not Adam Chance, who doesn’t appear to have worked since Crossroads, and never gets a look-in, although I couldn’t tell you why. It’s set in Washington and is one of those events-spiralling-out-of-control movies — in this instance, a most malign chain of events — which kicks off when Malkovich, a CIA analyst, angrily quits when faced with demotion and decides to write his memoirs. The Malkovich character is always very angry indeed, possibly because all these parts were written by the Coen brothers with all the above actors (apart from Adam, who may or may not have recovered from Jill jilting him at the altar) in mind, and if there is one thing Malkovich does, it is anger. All the other actors are similarly pinned down to the one characteristic, which is possibly the one you’d most expect. No surprises here, then.
So, we have Malkovich (angry) married to Tilda Swinton (icy), who, in turn, is having an affair with Clooney (goofy), a married federal marshal, whatever that is. Tilda wants a divorce, so, on the advice of her lawyer, copies her husband’s financial details on to a CD rom while inadvertently downloading his memoirs too. Eventually, this CD — can’t be bothered to tell you how exactly; just can’t — ends up being found in a locker across town at Hardbodies Fitness Centre, where two employees, McDormand (desperate) and Pitt (dumb, although, that said, they’re all pretty dumb), plan on exploiting their find for money, first via blackmail and, when that doesn’t work, taking the information to the Russians. It’s mad, it’s crazy, it shouldn’t work, and you know what? It doesn’t.
Although there are a couple of vaguely amusing moments, it fails as a comedy because it just isn’t funny, and it fails as a thriller because it just isn’t suspenseful and it fails as entertainment of any kind because it is all so ludicrously improbable. Icy and Goofy, for example. There is just no way they’d ever be attracted to each other in a million, zillion years. ‘Piss off, Goofy,’ she’d say to him. ‘And stop doing those funny faces and the saucer eyes. Do you have any idea how irritating it is?’ All the performances are one note, pretty much, largely because they are required to be, with a stand-out performance from Mr Pitt, who takes one-noteness to new one-note highs, playing dumb as if dumb means being three. He all but sucks his thumb. This is fun for about four minutes, but then gets tiresome. As for Frances McDormand, she is a wonderful actress with, usually, so much going on behind that brutish jaw but while she should provide the driving vulnerability here — she thinks that, to date better guys, she needs various cosmetic procedures, hence her desperation for money — she’s reduced to a cartoon.
In the end, actually, they’re all so stupid they could all fall under a bus, for all you care, which is effectively what does happen to most of them — via a couple of scenes of grotesque violence — and you don’t care. As I shall say to the two fibres of my being when they return from the Cotswolds: ‘Welcome home, chaps, and, no, you really didn’t miss much.’ Burn After Reading? Don’t Bother Seeing, more like.