Like Shakespeare’s, the work of the Coen brothers can be divided into tragedies and comedies — roughly, at least.
The tragedies (such as their first feature, Blood Simple, or their recent Oscar-winner, No Country for Old Men) have more than a twinge of black humour, and their comedies (Raising Arizona, or the brand-new Burn after Reading) make laughter out of events that, in the real world, would be pretty tragic.
Then again, perhaps the best way to see their work overall is as a form of tragicomedy, in the way Samuel Beckett referred to his Waiting for Godot as “a tragicomedy in two acts” — theirs are tragicomedies in three acts, the traditional form of the Hollywood narrative. The tragedy is that of the absurdity of human existence, and there’s the comedy too.
At any rate, it’s good to have a Coen comedy after the relentless bleakness of No Country for Old Men. It’s tragedies that tend to win Oscars, and that adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel (so much more successful than the other version of one of his books, All the Pretty Horses) is certainly an excellent film, even if the passing of time may reveal it to be a little more superficial than at first thought.
In Burn after Reading, the Coens can go all the way into absurdist comedy. If the weird hairdo of the unstoppable killer played by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men was its key black-comic touch, the hairdos in Burn after Reading don’t need to do so much hard work. In fact, its central character, a CIA man called Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) hasn’t got much hair at all.
Cox is dismissed from his CIA post within the first few minutes of the film, and that sets the plot rolling. Hassled by his chilly, manipulative wife (a bravura Tilda Swinton), he decides to write his memoirs and reveal all that’s wrong with today’s bungling CIA. Well, not “write” but dictate and put on disk — and there the next plot twist takes us. For a lost disk will be discovered by some bumblers more bumbling than the CIA, and that will pull them into blackmail and violence.
Intersecting with the Cox storyline are those of his aforementioned wife (amusingly, this harpy is a paediatrician by trade), a compulsive womaniser played with self-parodying charm by George Clooney, and two lame-brained gym instructors, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). The names themselves tell us that we’re in absurdist territory — Clooney’s character is called Harry Pfarrer, a name that sounds like a cross between something furry and a drawn-out fart. And, naturally, it has a redundant P.
Burn after Reading is a very funny film, with plenty of plot surprises and nutso moments to keep the viewer fully entertained throughout. The CIA presence, which provides a kind of commentary on the ongoing action, is among its most amusing elements, but Pitt is the most hilarious of all the players. He sends up his hunky he-man image beautifully.
There will be more than one viewer who wishes Burn after Reading had been released during the festive season proper, which was one of startling paucity as far as cinema went — we’d have had more to laugh at than Mr Bones II, and more to thrill us than the rather dour Quantum of Solace.
You have to take the Coen brothers’ absurdist view of these quasi-human caricatures on board, though. Don’t expect warmth, sympathy or sentiment. In fact, the opening shots of Burn after Reading set the tone. Before we get into the CIA offices where Osbourne Cox is getting shafted, we have a slick parody of all those aerial shots that punctuate films such as The Bourne Ultimatum, Syriana and Eagle Eye. It’s the god’s-eye-view or the CIA-satellite’s-view, zooming in from way above to pick out a continent, a country, a city, a suburb and finally a building.
It’s appropriate because there’s something Olympian about the Coen brothers’ view of the world: like the Greek gods, themselves decadent and fallible, they are both part-creators of this world and detached observers of its absurdities. They don’t feel particularly sorry for us, even as they sip ambrosia and murmur, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “What fools these mortals be.” They find our mundane tragedies funny.