After their Oscar-winning heavyweight No County For Old Men, the brothers breeze away in a bouncy shaggy dog story that contains all the Coen brothers’ essentials: would-be conmen, quirky characters and cruel violence. It’s another morality tale. Ordinary Joes who, sensing a quick buck, make a silly decision which sucks them into a murky world of crime and punishment for which they’re wholly unprepared.
It could be Fargo or No Country For Old Men. Two employees of the Hardbodies sports centre find a CD in their locker room. Seeing that it contains the memoirs of a shadowy government spy, they see a chance to make some money. Airhead trainer Brad Pitt is gung ho to blackmail the writer. Secretary Frances McDormand is keen to pay for cosmetic surgery and goes along with it.
Having seen spy movies, they think they know how it goes. But the ex-spook, John Malkovich, is in a murderous mood. And when McDormand’s next lonely-hearts online date turns out to be bumbling agent George Clooney, the scene is set for a farce of tragic-comic proportions. A story of dildos and daft double-dealings, it’s an easy ride.
Pitt and Clooney have a blast sending up their smooth personas. And their broad slapstick sets the tone. Opening with brooding Bourne-style credits – dramatic music and hi-tech text – Burn After Reading sends up the spy-thriller genre. Malkovich is more affronted than worried by Pitt’s cack-handed espionage. Even the Russians are non-plussed when McDormand passes the CD to them.
All the more shocking then when the violence erupts. A Coen brothers essential, it sees the innocent and foolhardy get more than they deserve. Like the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or the paintings of Bosch, curious characters and cruelty combine to leave a salty but sour taste.
Pratfalls aside, the best humour’s to be had from the government chief who can’t understand how the storm-in-a-teacup arose. ‘Come back to me when it makes sense’, he says. It’s the Coen brothers’ nod-and-a-wink to the audience. And Malkovich’s foul-mouthed agent almost steals the show.
Clever and quirky, cruel and creative – the Coen brothers make quality films. And Burn After Reading is one of them, but by no means their best. Yet unlike the amoral movies of Tarantino, the Coen brothers have a keen humanity which always shines through.
This is popcorn then, but not as we know it.