"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Almost as good as watching a good Coen brothers movie is following the sometimes seemingly out-of-left-field choices they'll make for their next project. They'll follow a murder drama with a screwball comedy and then veer over into a Prohibition-era gangster story. Then they'll make a movie about writer's block and wallpaper.
Those decisions have sometimes cost them dearly, sometimes resulted in movies that seemed to be made more for them than for us, but though those choices have occasionally been failures, they've never been boring.
“Burn After Reading” is another tonal 180-degree turn, this time from Cormac McCarthy's watch-the-world-burn bleakness in “No Country for Old Men” to a dark but goofy comedy about what happens when marriages fail and idiots get hold of some of the fallout.
There's little I can tell you about it without having to recount the whole story, but it starts like this: A CIA analyst (John Malkovich) is getting squeezed out of the agency because of his alcoholism, so he quits in a huff and starts writing a spook memoir. Unbeknownst to him, his icy, shrewd wife (Tilda Swinton) is preparing to leave him for her lover (George Clooney), and copies a bunch of his personal files to share with her attorney.
A copy of those files is lost and recovered by two doofus gym employees, played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand. They're convinced that they've found sensitive government information, so they try to blackmail Malkovich to help pay for a slew of cosmetic surgeries that McDormand's character needs to have to deal with life after 40.
That's the absurd setup, and there are three or four more equally ridiculous threads that begin with only the most tenuous connections to each other. The attempted blackmail gradually braids those threads together one by one in turns sometimes funny, sometimes depressing, until the characters are all practically tripping over one another and everything goes to hell.
It's a 96-minute-long shaggy dog story, one that has occasional flourishes of brilliance and leaves you with the sense that though there seems to be no point to what happened, there's a hint of an absurdist morality play going on about the fruits of greed, selfishness and vanity. Messy people make a mess messier, and leave it to the deus ex machina to clean it up.
The best touch of all is the revelation that the CIA has been watching along with us and knows pretty much everything we do — and just like us, they don't know what the hell's going on either. That little piece of meta-commentary is the rug that ties the room together, the reassuring pat on the back that though we may be wasting our time trying to understand it all, there's no harm trying. They are the only characters we sympathize with because they are the us we think we are, the ones who are trying to make sense, not the us I suspect the Coens are telling us we are, the ones who are making the mess.
“Burn After Reading” isn't a great film by Coen standards, but it's a pretty darn good one, funny and thought-provoking stuff. However, a warning: if you hated the way “Barton Fink” or “No Country” ended, you'll hate this one too. That'd be a shame, but one I'd have trouble blaming you for. The truest endings are sometimes the least satisfying.
However, you will get to see George Clooney attack a dildo with a sledgehammer. That should be satisfaction enough for anyone.