The latest movie from Joel and Ethan Coen is another grimly funny story featuring ruthless people who are not nearly as smart as they think they are. The premise is pretty convoluted, but I’ll try to summarize it:
A disgruntled former CIA analyst (John Malkovich), who is married to the worlds scariest pediatrician (Tilda Swinton), decides to write a tell-all memoir. Somehow a copy ends up in the hands of a middle-aged physical trainer (Frances McDormand) who needs money for cosmetic surgery to “reinvent her life.” With the help of hermoronic coworker (Brad Pitt) she hatches a scheme to blackmail the author.
Meanwhile a sleazy Treasury agent (George Clooney) is carrying on affairs with all of the female characters, which thoroughly complicates everyone else’s plots.
Disconcertingly, George Cooney’s character is reminiscent of the character he played in the Ocean’s Eleven series. However those movies were about impossibly brilliant crooks carryout impossibly complex capers, while this one is about obviously ill-considered schemes in which everything possible goes wrong.
Some people may see the words “Coen Brothers” and “Frances McDormand” and expect something like 1996’s Fargo. However there is a big difference. In Fargo she played a smart, sensible policewoman who provided an island of moral stability in a movie filled with despicable characters. Her character in Burn After Reading is more like the character played by William H. Macy in Fargo: glib, desperate and filled with a burning sense of entitlement; hatching poorly thought-out schemes and drawing the other characters into them.
The lack of a truly good character makes this movie a much darker satire. Yet it still is very funny. Since none of the characters are very sympathetic (with one minor exception) I don’t feel bad about laughing when things go wrong for them. It’s like laughing at dumb crooks.
On the other hand the characters are recognizable enough for the satire to sting. They are not supervillains; they are ourselves at our worst moments.
This movie is rated “R” for bad language, some relatively mild violence, and an ingenious but unsettlingmechanical device.