The Spy Who Didn’t Have Enough Sense to Come In From the Cold

Burn After Reading and the Coen Brothers’ populism

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One thing that almost all the Coen Brothers’ movies have in common is stupid people. I’m not exactly breaking new ground in cinema studies here: whether they’re stupid but good-hearted (Raising Arizona), stupid and vain (Intolerable Cruelty), stupid people gone cynical (No Country for Old Men), or just plain stupid (Blood Simple), not since the Bush/Cheney administration have two men accomplished so much by artfully manipulating the ignorant.

Burn After Reading doesn’t do anything to break that trend; like Blood Simple, its whole plot is driven by stupid people in way over their heads. Like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, it shows a horrible string of events escalating from one stupid decision. Like The Man Who Wasn’t There and The Hudsucker Proxy, it’s a pitch-perfect parody of another genre of movie (in this case, the spy thriller). Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it gets near-genius performances out of every single person in the cast — in this one, Brad Pitt and George Clooney are the stand-outs, and that’s only because Frances McDormand is so great you never notice how great she is.

You can’t avoid comparing it to other Coen Brothers movies, because it’s like a Coen Brothers sampler. Great soundtrack, brilliant dialogue (they can make a guy saying nothing but “fuck” sound like poetry), familiar plot threads mixed up in surprising ways, and masterful editing; you’ve got to think it’s impossible for these guys to make a bad movie. They’ve even included their “Greek chorus” characters like in Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, and Big Lebowski, the guys who remind you it’s all just a movie and tell the audience what’s going on (although in this case, they admit they don’t know what’s going on).

And it’s hilarious, with just the right combination of lowbrow and highbrow so you’re never sure where the next joke is coming from. You want subtle? There’s a sequence following a guy walking through the corridors of C.I.A. headquarters, and each hallway has its own unique oppressive rushing-of-air ambient noise. Not-so-subtle? The reveal of the invention George Clooney’s character’s been building in the basement had the entire audience laughing out of shock.

Still, it’s a hard movie to love. I’ve read reviews that call it “slight,” or “a trifle.” One particularly misguided review of the movie comes from Ty Burr of the Boston Globe: he criticizes the movie for having no meaning or art, and just being a smug laugh at the audience’s expense. But my problem with the movie isn’t that it doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing wrong with the Coens’ deciding just to goof off for one movie, especially when they’re so good at doing it. The movie would work fine as a simple parody of spy thrillers, deflating their self importance: the global satellite cameras, discs with sensitive info, shady deals in foreign embassies, and pervasive paranoia.

My problem with it is what it does say. To make yet another comparison: it’s ultimately got the same sense of defeatist cynicism as No Country for Old Men. What makes Burr’s criticism so wrong — and he’s far from being the only person who’s made the same misinterpretation — is that the Coen Brothers’ movies are all about rejecting the smug, elitist mentality he accuses them of.

The Coens love showing us stupid people, but they almost always encourage us to root for them. (Except for Blood Simple, which is based on the characters’ being idiots you can’t feel any sympathy for, but that was more a movie about moviemaking than about characters.) Pretty much all of the movies are resoundingly populist and optimistic. That was the core message of Fargo: there’s plenty of hopelessness, and desperation, and sadness, and just plain evil in the world, but people are basically good. (Or at least they want to be). And most importantly, that there’s nothing naive or foolish about acknowledging that.

I think anybody who dismisses the Coens’ movies as being smug or elitist is doing more than a little bit of projection: the viewer might be looking down on these characters, but the movies aren’t. For the most part, they’re good people doing bad things. And part of the reason the morality of the Coens’ movies works so well is that they acknowledge that real evil exists (more often than not in the form of John Goodman), but they don’t dismiss everyone just for being flawed. When Frances McDormand’s character at the end of Fargo says “I just don’t understand,” she’s not being stupid, she’s being sincere: she doesn’t understand why someone would choose to throw away a world that has such simple beauty.

There’s a little bit of that in Burn After Reading — the only real villains of the movie are John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton’s characters. They’re not just flawed; they’re broken. And Malkovich’s character commits the worst possible crime in a Coen movie: it’s not murder, but being a pompous, self-important asshole. When he delivers his speech about the “league of morons” he’s been forced to deal with, that’s not the Coens talking; it’s the audience’s signal that he’s passed the point of being a flawed but ultimately sympathetic character, and he’s become irredeemable.

But ultimately, that ends up feeling like a holdover, a vestigial characterization tic left over from back when the Coens made positive movies. There’s a real sense of hopelessness and emptiness in Burn After Reading, and a sense that they’re even mocking the concept of optimism. When characters reach their breaking point, they yell at each other for being “negative,” and the naivete of it gets a laugh. Everyone is selfish and deceptive, and the whole descent into murder is caused by our protagonist’s being lonely and sad and looking in the wrong place for self-improvement. The capper is as well-written as anything the Coens have ever done, but it also just confirms that nobody really knows what happened, or how to keep it from happening again. For such a funny movie, it’s pretty bleak.

I’m hoping that the whole shift in tone is just detritus from the cynicism of No Country for Old Men. Even at their worst, the Coens are still geniuses at screenwriting and editing, and at the very least you’re going to see something visually interesting. But when they hit that sweet spot between cynical and naive, arch and sincere, clever and populist, it’s transcendent. I’m hoping they can get it all out of their system and just get back to their happy place. I don’t know. Maybe it’s Utah.

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