Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal
We’ve all been there. You’re with your bros, ranking your favorite Coen Brothers’ movies, and things get tricky. You have 18 films with nary a stinker in sight, at least half of which could justifiably be in the top spot. Thoughts like “is there really no room for Barton Fink in my top 5?” and “can anything besides Intolerable Cruelty go in the bottom slot?” occupy your head. As someone who recently tried and failed to come up with such a daunting list, I’ve come to respect any attempt to conjure up a cogent Coen pecking order. However, one trend continues to befuddle me: the consistent underrating of the screwball spy comedy Burn After Reading.
Saddled chronologically between Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men and existential parable A Serious Man, Burn After Reading came in 2008 like a bit of respite between two pillars of heavier fare. I like to think of it as the loosening of the belt between plate one and plate two of Thanksgiving dinner. At a lean 96 minutes, it’s as tightly edited and efficiently rendered as anything the Coens have committed to celluloid to this point. But most importantly, the film is laugh-out-loud hilarious no matter how many times you’ve seen it, which I mark as a true test of a great comedy.
Of all the roles in Tilda Swinton’s career, her character in Burn After Reading would likely qualify as one of the more “normal” people that she has portrayed. She plays Katie Cox, the uptight and unrelenting wife of John Malkovich’s Osbourne Cox, a CIA analyst who gets sacked in the film’s opening scene and unwittingly sets into motion the comedy of errors to come. We discover early on that Katie is pursuing an affair with the likewise married US Marshal Harry Pfarrer, played with zig-zagging charm and kookiness by George Clooney. Her plan is to divorce “Ozzie” provided Harry can break it off with his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), who Katie affectionally refers to as a “cold, stuck-up bitch,” a term that Harry’s wife coincidentally uses to describe Katie.
As an unbiased observer, I may have to side with Sandy on this one. Adorn with outfits that scream “old money” and a hairstyle modeled after Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons, Katie is certainly not the most approachable person. In her mind, everyone constantly acts in an embarrassing manner and there’s nearly no situation that can’t be sped along with an exasperated “for fuck’s sake!” When her bumbling divorce attorney urges a “day of reflection” before pursuing legal action, she scoffs and quickly feigns a one-sided smile. Trapped in a storyline where characters make increasingly dubious decisions, she serves as the stern captain aboard this ship of fools.
Despite her seeming superiority, Katie is begrudgingly smitten with one of said fools. There’s something about Harry, be it his post-coital running routine or his penchant for high-quality flooring, that has captured the modicum of affection that she has to offer. That doesn’t mean she’s not willing to push him around too though. When Harry accuses Katie of forcing him to hastily split with Sandy, she assures him “I do *not* hammer!” as she punctuates each word with a pounding finger on the restaurant table. But the Coens save the funniest detail about Swinton’s character until the hour-and-twenty minute mark. The late reveal of her profession, which flies in the face of everything that we’ve come to know about her up to that point, is one of my favorite low-key punchlines in the entire film.
It’s a testament to how well-organized and tightly compiled this madcap comedy is. There’s not a single extraneous moment or wasted line and many scenes seem to rhyme with the scene previous to it. Take the opening, in which Ozzie gets ousted from his CIA position due to his alcoholism. After an outburst, which he mockingly echoes the “I have a drinking problem” accusation of his superior, we cut right to a close-up of Ozzie cracking a fresh ice tray for his first of many Cuba Libres. The Coens also intersperse the propulsive storyline with hilarious interjections by CIA higher-ups, played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, who are desperately trying to untangle the messy story that is unfolding before them. Like a pair of puzzled Greek gods profanely presiding over their subjects, their scrambling to try to “resolve” the situation is a brilliantly funny way to recontextualize the labyrinthine plot.
Strange to go this long talking about Burn After Reading and not mention the gonzo performances by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as a duo of hapless gym trainers who get in way over their empty heads. Pitt alone has a litany of silly face expressions and goofy dance moves to inspire pages of reaction GIFs on his own. He had done a little comedy before and has done some comedy since but I don’t think I’ve seen Pitt cut quite as loose as he does here. But for all the “foolishness” (to borrow a term from Katie) that’s on display, Burn After Reading works as well as it does because it’s balanced by factors like the straight-laced and tightly-coiled performance by Tilda Swinton.