The Coen brothers are filmmakers of such power, when they hit you, you’re going to feel it in the morning. As a comedy, even a black comedy, their new film, “Burn After Reading,” isn’t very funny. But it’s a compact object of intelligence, aggression, and condescension that connects anyway – like a sucker punch.
Take the John Malkovich character, CIA analyst Osborne Cox. His speech is so peppered with profanity it’s like he’s spitting birdshot. Ozzy is always coming at you – he gives one character a sock to the nose that comes out of nowhere, makes us blink. His petulance keeps us on edge; we’re pretty sure that real violence is just around the corner.
The film begins in outer space, regarding the Earth from the vantage point of a spy satellite, or a disinterested God. We descend through the clouds; then we drop right through the roof of CIA headquarters. We follow a pair of urgently-clomping feet (as if out of “Point Blank”) into a featureless office so tiny, it’s a glorified cubicle. The suggestion, with that “powers of ten” opening, is that the scurrying of these characters is of no more consequence than the business of ants.
In that claustrophobic room (the joke pays off when we end up in the office of a CIA guy of much higher clearance, and the only difference is the color of the carpet) Ozzy gets fired from his job on the Balkans desk. Nobody’s particularly concerned about what kind of damage a disgruntled eastern European analyst might do; he’s not high up enough to be dangerous.
Ozzy’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is a severe shrew who won’t countenance a husband stumbling about in a dirty robe with his potbelly and a highball. She’s already having an affair anyway, with an ex-Treasury agent, Harry Pfarmer (George Clooney, finally allowing himself to look a little old in the neck). She quietly initiates divorce proceedings, secretly burning what she thinks are Ozzy’s financials onto a CD-ROM.
The disc is the MacGuffin. Left in the ladies’ locker room of a corporate gym, it comes into the possession of manager Linda Litzke, Frances McDormand. Linda, and a dim bulb personal trainer in her orbit, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), aren’t sure what the documents on the disc mean, but they’re pretty certain they involve state secrets. They decide to blackmail Ozzy – Linda, so she can pay for plastic surgery procedures to beat back her flabby arms and crows’ feet.
Linda is a human terror. She likes playing the spy games she’s probably encountered in cheap Cold War novels. This barely raises the eyebrows of the real spooks, though it drives Ozzy, a joke spy to begin with, crazy as an outhouse rat. Linda is so narcissistic she’s oblivious to the dominoes she’s knocking over.
The Coens are satirizing middle age here –when the powers of the body are in decline, things are starting to sag, career disappointments turn out to be permanent, and young Turks are nipping at your heels. But what’s surprising is their vehement disdain. These characters are not only shallow and self-absorbed, they’re stupid. Lilly is obliviously over her head. Chad is an enthusiastic buffoon. Harry’s sex addiction, even as he two-times his wife and triple-times his lover, is seen as pathetic.
Following the grand success of “No Country for Old Men,” which was, after all, just a literal translation of Cormack McCarthy, “Burn After Reading” comes instead from that well of venom that produced “Intolerable Cruelty”. The film comes at you with such speed and precision, some of its effects are subliminal (Chad’s expression, as he lurches at you from a dark closet, lasts no more than a second, but it comes welling up on reflection). When the ax finally falls, figuratively after the film’s surprisingly short 96 minutes, and literally, with a “Fargo” thwock, it’s as unnervingly sudden as a forty-something cut down in mid-stride by a heart attack.