Joel and Ethan Coen have made a career of crafting quirky, dark films that blend equal parts absurdity and shock value. And seemingly unaffected by the fact that their No Country for Old Men won a Best Picture Oscar last year, they've done so again with Burn After Reading—a movie whose characters put the odd in oddball.
Osbourne Cox—Oz, as he's known—is a meticulous, high-strung CIA analyst who's "asked" to move to a State Department job, ostensibly because his drinking problem is a security liability. Oz rejects the offer ... with a hail of f-bombs. And he decides the time has come to leave the Agency and pen a memoir of his season at the CIA—never mind the scoffing of his wife, Katie (who's cheating on him and considering divorce).
Elsewhere in suburban Washington, D.C., a love-starved middle-aged woman named Linda Litzke has had it with loneliness ... not to mention cellulite. The Hardbodies gym trainer is determined to "reinvent" herself via plastic surgery. There's only one problem: Her insurance won't cover it. And her desperate pleas for a salary advance from her conscientious gym manager, Ted, go unrewarded. So she bides her time meeting (and sleeping with) men she meets via an online dating service.
Oz's self-congratulatory memoir collides with Linda's lust for a bigger chest when a misplaced data disc leads to extortion, violence and ... the Russians.
Burn After Reading is a portrait of men and women who are self-absorbed to the point of ridiculousness. Among these comedic caricatures, however, is one grounded, reasonably levelheaded individual: Ted.
Ted is a quiet, fiftysomething single man who secretly has a crush on Linda. Even as her life spins out of control, Ted drops subtle hints that he cares for her and that he would be interested (and capable of offering) the kind of romance Linda longs for. Ted compliments Linda and tries to warn her away from unscrupulous choices. "You're changing, Linda," he says. "It's very sad." Ted also refuses to help Linda fund her body reconstruction campaign when she tries to manipulate him into doing so. In short, Ted is (for most of the film) the lone voice of reason and common sense amid a maelstrom of foolishness.
In a self-aware moment of despair or perhaps remorse regarding his illicit lifestyle, Harry (a smooth-talking U.S. Treasury agent) calls his wife and asks her to come home from a business trip. It seems he's ready to begin repairing the damage he's caused (though this momentary flicker of conscience is soon extinguished).
Ted tries to initiate a deeper relationship with Linda by talking about his past, which included serving for 14 years as a Greek Orthodox priest. He says of his life after the priesthood, "In many ways, I'm a lot happier now." But it's unclear whether he really believes that.
The enthusiastic-but-dimwitted Hardbodies trainer Chad Feldheimer invokes the story of the Good Samaritan to give himself a pat on the back.
Harry is depicted as something of a sex addict. He's simultaneously having affairs with three women (Katie, Linda, and another unnamed woman). Most of the scenes implying these sexual relationships show Harry and his partners dressing after the act. One finds him and Katie talking in bed (with her bare shoulders and some cleavage visible). We also hear the sounds of Harry and Katie having sex. And near the end of the film, we see that a contraption Harry's been welding together is actually an elaborate sex toy that involves a dildo. (Harry takes a sledgehammer to it when he learns that his wife is on the brink of leaving him.)
Linda has sex with a man she met on an online dating service after their first (and only) date. A shadowy camera shot from the hallway outside her bedroom momentarily pictures him on top of her.
Elsewhere, we glimpse Harry's bare torso when he's in the shower. And we see Oz in his boxers.
Harry suggestively couches his penchant for risk-taking in sexual terms ("You can't always wear a condom"). And he humorously realizes something he said could be misinterpreted as a request for anal sex. A smattering of visual and verbal cues perhaps hint that Chad—who makes comments containing double entendres about men's bodies at the gym—is a homosexual.
Harry is startled to find a man hiding in a closet, and accidentally shoots him in the middle of the forehead. Yes, this is that kind of film. We see a lot of blood on his victim's face and splattered on the wall. Later, we learn from the CIA that Harry dumped the body in a river; a high-level CIA manager instructs agents to find and burn the body.
Another character gets shot in the chest and then attacked by a man with a small ax. From a distance we see the ax swing down on him several times. A subsequent CIA report informs us that the ax-wielder was then shot by CIA agents, and that the assailant is brain-dead and in a coma.
While driving, Linda chases Oz and rams the back of his car with hers. Harry gets fed up with someone in a car who's constantly following him, and he rams the other vehicle. Oz punches Chad in the nose, bloodying it.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters use the f-word at least 60 times, take Jesus' and God's names in vain about 25 and spew 20-some s-words. We also hear more than a dozen milder vulgarities and at least three different crude references to the male anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink various alcoholic beverages, mostly martinis and wine. Oz, especially, tends to pour himself a drink whenever he's under stress. One scene pictures him unconscious in a chair, and it's implied that he drank until he passed out.
Several scenes briefly show people at parties or at bars smoking cigarettes and cigars.
Other Negative Elements
Katie's lawyer says of Oz, "He is a man practiced in deceit." And Oz isn't the only one. Harry also lies to virtually every woman he meets and implies an interest in a real relationship when all he's interested in is sex. Specifically, he tells Linda that he and his wife are separated (they're not).
Katie, too, lies to her husband and, before locking him out of the house, empties secret savings and checking accounts that he's kept from her. Harry encourages her to "dump that bozo," referring to Oz. Linda, meanwhile, is opportunistic to an ethical fault.
Chad breaks into Oz and Katie's house. Ted does the same thing. Even Oz breaks into his own house after Katie locks him out, taking liquor and Katie's jewelry.
Linda makes disparaging remarks about certain body parts and her displeasure with them. And we briefly see a close-up shot of a doctor touching Linda's backside as he evaluates what plastic surgery she needs. With the camera behind her, Linda stands with her gown open as he examines her and explains the breast enhancement procedure.
The latest offering from the Coen brothers satirizes self-absorption. While not quite as bleak as Fargo, it ultimately inhabits similar (decidedly R-rated) territory: goofball characters bumble around profanely and make horrible decisions with little—if any—regard for their potentially destructive consequences. Ethan Coen summed up the standing instructions to the film's talented cast by saying simply, "We asked the actors to embrace their inner knucklehead."
By that measuring stick, this dark lark excels.
Still, this Coen farce has left even longtime reviewers scratching their heads. Time's Richard Corliss, for example, reported that he just wasn't sure what to make of it. "Film critics aren't supposed to confess bafflement at the end of a review, but that's what I feel here," he wrote. "Burn After Reading is a movie about stupidity that left me feeling stupid."
I think I know what Corliss is talking about. The film ends with CIA officers flippantly sweeping the whole affair under the rug, dismissing the deaths of two characters and the fact that another is brain-dead and in a coma with little more than a shrug. "What have we learned?" a CIA honcho asks his underling. "I don't know, sir," replies the agent cleaning up the mess. His statement underlines the absurdity and seeming meaninglessness of these people's lives.
It's tempting, then, to dismiss the whole movie as little more than theater of the absurd, a mindless exercise in obscenity-littered silliness.
But there's just got to be something more going on here. Linda Litzke is obsessed with reinventing herself. Turns out that Harry Pfarrer and Osbourne Cox have also signed up for their own varying kinds of reinvention projects.
But, as Harry notes in what struck me as the film's most lucid moment, "Life is not invented." It can't be molded into exactly what we think it should be. Plastic surgery won't solve Linda's problems. Nor does nonstop sex apparently fill Harry's deepest needs—something he momentarily realizes. And it's doubtful whether Oz will ever finish, let alone publish, his self-absorbed memoir. The point, I think, is this: Trying to force our fantasies into reality usually doesn't go too well. And it might just end up killing everyone we care about.
Whether or not most viewers will get that point remains to be seen—deluged as Burn After Reading is beneath madcap mayhem, profanity and sexual content. And whether the Coens are really, truly, genuinely interested in making statements about humanity's foibles remains an open question. When an Associated Press reporter asked whether their "penchant for dopes say[s] anything about what they think of humanity as a whole," Ethan responded, "Jeez, I don't know. It's a fair characterization of these characters, but boy, bringing it to real life is kind of a strange thing. You don't go around thinking about how characters in a movie, in the stories you make up, relate to people in general."
It's probably best, then, not to read too much insight into this aerobic exercise in ribald ridiculousness from the Brothers Coen.