Seeing how the monstrous success of No Country For Old Men came on the back of a streak of comparative meh-ness, a phase that spawned the love ‘em or hate ‘em The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, it was always going to be intriguing to see what the Coens came up with next.
After a flirtation with the mainstream that maybe didn’t reach the critical heights of previous efforts, building on No Country’s Oscar-hogging would be tricky – a repeat dose of gothic menace, back to the tried and tested or something else altogether?
What they attempted was to make The Ultimate Coen Brothers Film. An eccentric screwball opus, Burn After Reading contains all the core elements you’d ever want from a classic Coen film. Blessed with a healthy clutch of A-listers, all quirking it up in that gloriously over-stylised fashion, and with a playfully oddball script, it’s firmly placed in Fargo territory.
When CIA agent Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) gets fired, he decides to write his memoirs, while his icy missus (Tilda Swinton) files for divorce so she can shack up with klutz Harry (Clooney). Advised by her lawyer to take stock of Cox’s finances, a disc containing his records, along with his memoir goes missing, ending up in the hands of a pair of gloriously dense gym workers (Pitt and McDormand). With a whiff of extortion filling their nostrils, the clue-free buffoons offer it to Cox, only resulting in mass confusion and a cluster bomb of ever-greater mishaps and disasters.
It’s a return to the form that made the Coens the cult darlings, with a snappy and witty script, top comedy performances and their distinct ability to warp the mundane into the freakish. It holds its own against the likes of Fargo and Lebowski, but from technical point of view, it arguably outstrips them.
Shockingly comfortable with the mechanics, conventions and clichés of cinema, the pair use them with smart-arse abandon to construct a finely honed piece of work. When stripped down to its basic elements, nothing of any true note actually happens, just the implication and possibility of grand spectacle - but by leading us on like Pavlov’s dogs, they prod our brains to create a wildly inflated vision of what’s going on.
They even have the balls to rub our noses in it too - kept abreast of the tribulations of his former employee, JK Simmons’ CIA boss struggles to see what all the fuss is about.
That may sound coldly calculating, but the flipside makes it all worth it - a miraculous jumble of intrigue, drama, comedy, action, romance and personal crises, it tickles every conceivable entertainment spot. Maybe there’s a post-modernist sense of irony to the whole thing, but it’s handled with such expertise you’ll be too busy enjoying it to notice.
A well-crafted, clever, witty and utterly entertaining flick from film-makers at the top of their game, only a hater could fail to get a kick out of this.
Starring: John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen