At the point at which Burn After Reading was released, the Coen Brothers had a certain amount of form, in terms of making mainstream comedies populated by Hollywood stars. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty it stars George Clooney, but in contrast to those films, and to their unnecessary remake of The Ladykillers, this one is genuinely funny. It’s strange, given that they’ve never made a film that could really be said not to be a comedy, how far off the mark they’ve been when they’ve self-consciously aimed for it. Raising Arizona was completely daft, and The Big Lebowski was too off-the-wall to look like an address to the mainstream, but the three movies I mentioned above, which are clearly intended to make money, are shockingly mediocre, given how good the Coens usually are.
Burn After Reading has the same plot as most Coen Brothers movies. Criminal schemes go disastrously wrong, none of the characters knows what’s going on—coincidences confounding rather than clarifying their understanding—and the conclusion arrives by happenstance, without any real concession to conventional narrative closure. They didn’t invent that kind of a story, and indeed they’ve explicitly ascribed their interest in films where none of the action really matters in the end to Raymond Chandler adaptations from the Golden Age of Hollywood—but they’ve certainly made such narratives their own.
The film is a real ensemble piece, in which most of the ensemble are expensive, big-name actors: Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt and John Malkovich are joined in the top billing by Coen insider Frances McDormand, and they’re supported by the generally underrated and underutilised Richard Jenkins. They’re all good sports here, assigned parts that make no concession to the actors’ vanity—at worst they are stupid, unpleasant and self-deceiving, like Malkovich’s character, at best just stupid, like Pitt’s or Jenkins’s. As such the Coens walk a fine line between amusing their audience and leaving them without any basis to empathise with their characters; this is a criticism that was levelled against the movie on its release, but somehow I was able to empathise. I felt sorry for Clooney’s male dumb-blonde (his character isn’t blonde, but that’s definitely the vibe), I felt a good deal of sympathy for McDormand’s middle-aged office worker, betrayed by her ageing body, and I even identified to some degree with Malkovich’s nasty, supercilious CIA analyst, wrongly convinced he’s surrounded by his intellectual inferiors.
This left me wondering why, since the main reason I could identify for finding Intolerable Cruelty utterly unengaging was that I wasn’t remotely interested in what happened to its unpleasant central characters. Of course it is easier to be interested in the disasters that befall a bunch of selfish arseholes, as in Burn After Reading, than in their eventual romantic unions, as in the earlier movie, but on reflection I think the main difference is that the later film was written as well as directed by the Coen Brothers. Their dialogue, and of course their plotting, is a big part of the creative success of their movies—a point which is easy to lose track of amidst the technical dazzle and audacious formal manoeuvres that tend to characterise their output.
I wouldn’t begin to speculate as to why I find a given piece of comedy funny—it’s one of the greatest mysteries in art and criticism. But I can certainly say why I liked this movie. As I noted above, a Coen Brothers flick is never not comedy: the humour and caricature that suffuses Burn After Reading is also present in No Country For Old Men or Miller’s Crossing, but it’s expressed in a different way. There is a continuum between caricature and archetype, one which is more noticeable the further you are historically and culturally from the narrative work—in folk tales it’s very easy to imagine the anonymous storyteller is having a laugh, and movie-making largely trades in the same currency. Of course many serious film-makers do something more modern, that thing called fiction, in which the mimetic representation of human experience is the central aim, but the Coens have always been interested in Hollywood as a mythology, and in their craft as a descendant of the art of bards and skalds. Their formula, if they have one, is to perfectly refine the stylistic essence of their inherited cinematic materials, and to hilariously or tragically upend their expected trajectories, and that is what they do here.