This is a thing I wrote a while ago that’s never been published in this space before. (I’m very ill, so the pithy retrospective commentary is truncated this week.)
I doubt there was a single knowing film fan out there who figured that Joel and Ethan Coen would view their gold-plated induction into Hollywood’s upper echelon as impetus to start making bloodless (in every sense of the word), serious work which telegraphs it’s supposed importance with every dewy frame. Still, it’s oddly gratifying to find the follow-up to the extraordinary, justly awarded No Country For Old Men is such a unabashedly goofy lark. How perfect that the filmmakers that began their career with the lean noir of Blood Simple followed by the cartoonish comedy of Raising Arizona are repeating that sort of freewheeling genre-hopping some twenty years later.
The new film, Burn After Reading, is unmistakably a Coen brothers product. If the world were ever stripped of all its dolts and criminals, the Coens would be at the loosest of ends. Here they draw their favorite sorts of characters together in a simple story of a misplaced CD of data pulled from a former government agent’s computer. It becomes wildly complicated when the interlocking relationships of the characters and the accompanying collection of poor decisions begins to wreak their influence. In fact, it gets so complicated that the two most uproarious scenes contain little more than a CIA agent recounting the various twists to his increasingly aggravated superior. Quiet miracle worker J.K. Simmons plays the boss, which helps immensely in elevating these simple back-and-forth scenes to high hilarity.
All this happy praise acknowledged, I tend to find the Coen comedies agreeable-but-lesser works, and Burn is finally no exception. The tangles of the plot occasionally devolve into somewhat dull shagginess. These films are also where the Coens’ tendency towards overly broad elements come most jarringly into play. They’ve largely excised that tic from their visual repertoire, but it still shows up in the character construction and the performances. Sometimes that works (as it does with Brad Pitt’s blackmailing trainer, but then Pitt is usually most vividly engaged onscreen when he’s playing someone who’s not particularly bright) and sometimes it doesn’t (sadly, Frances McDormand’s performance is the film’s weakest). John Malkovich fits into the Coen aesthetic so snugly that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for him to be drafted into their troupe.
There were some worries before No Country For Old Men that the Coens had run their artistic course, not just because their previous couple of films were not well regarded, but because for the first time the Coens weren’t filming original material, relying on a found script and an adaptation. In fact, Burn is the first wholly original screenplay from the brothers since 2001’s underrated The Man Who Wasn’t There. The new film may not deserve mention with their best work, but it certainly ratifies the promise No Country made that the first underwhelming stretch of their joint career was a road bump rather than a permanent downturn. The dark, devious Coen sensibility is plenty healthy and the film landscape is all the better for it.