J K Simmons
The names on the billing reads like a hit-list of movie genius: Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand; above all, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Any one of those would be enough to put a film-lover into a state of excitement: coupled with the astounding success of the Coens' last, Oscar-laden No Country For Old Men, it all sounds too good to be true.
Burn After Reading is an original script and takes a topical theme – the loss of a computer disc containing sensitive data. Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) is a spy who’s just been burned, and decides to write his memoirs. His wife Katie (Swinton) despairs, and sets about to divorce him – much to the horror of lover and serial internet-dater Harry Pfarrer (Clooney).
Then the draft of the memoirs is found accidentally by Linda and Chad (McDormand and Pitt), two low-hopers working in a gym. Linda wants cosmetic surgery – Chad wants thrills – together they set out to ransom the disc for all its worth. Which, as it turns out, isn’t much: but someone ends up getting killed along the way all the same.
As if it were necessary, the press material proclaims that all the parts were written for their stars, but this couldn’t be more obvious if the characters were given their actor’s names. There’s a lot of playing to – or deliberately against – type: Tilda Swinton as a tight-assed bitch (see Michael Clayton), Clooney as a charming and loveable idiot (see every other Coen-Clooney movie), McDormand as a sympathetic loser who turns out to steel-edged. Pitt has most fun as a dweeby bike-and-iPod-loving “regular guy”, but his dancing around in cycling shorts is still depressingly reminiscent of an equally Heat-magazine baiting moment from Cameron Diaz stinker The Holiday.
Arguably Malkovich fares worst, playing the kind of pretentious shouty drunk that he always has to play. To write a part for a great actor and then undervalue him seems almost like a crime: the Coens even seem to know it, because Malkovich’s character sinks slowly into the background of the picture until he could almost have been written away entirely.
That said, Joel and Ethan couldn’t write a dull scene even if they were knocking out a script alongside a grander proposition – something like No Country For Old Men, say – and there’s probably more wit, quirk, surprise and tension here than anywhere else in American cinema this season.
But it all feels strangely tame: not approaching the imaginative gymnastics of the brother’s best films, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski, and the ending is pointless and throwaway. Despite this being clued all the way from the title itself, it doesn’t prevent the story from being ultimately forgettable. A good low-key ending has something to say about its own lack of meaning: take the end of Adaptation, for instance. Burn After Reading closes on a joke and the sad truth, it’s not even a very funny one.
On the plus side, a Coen Brothers disappointment is still better than 80% of what’s out there, and even Burn After Reading is better than their last worst film, Intolerable Cruelty. Clooney’s desperate eyes and a few short scenes with J. K. Simmons (Spiderman) are worth the ticket-price alone. But it’s hard to escape the sense of expecting a firecracker and ending up with a damp squib.