Sometimes, nonsense makes the most sense


Burn After Reading

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

2008, R rating, 96 min.

For those who admire Coen Brothers comedies, “Burn After Reading” is as good as expected, and maybe a little bit better.

It has the same heavy-handed satirical style as earlier works, and its humor is just as bewildering. The “plus” is the meaning.

The actors, as always, have no limits placed on them. Every one of them in this film, except John Malkovich, is absolutely perfect. Richard Jenkins makes a wonderfully lovable sap, Tilda Swinton is completely odious and Frances McDormand is a category all to herself. Those who haven’t seen matinee idols George Clooney and Brad Pitt cast as clowns before will be amazed at how terrifically they carry it off.

Malkovich was miscast. He is too good for this movie. In fact, it could be argued that he is too good for any movie. This time, even his uptight, nerdy, alcoholic, unlovable, unlikeable, bow-tie role can’t keep him from tipping the entire movie toward him. He’s that good. Instead of being cast as the biggest loser in a troupe of losers, he should have played God, perhaps, delivering the moral at the end.

People love Coen Brothers plots because, like real stories, they don’t make any sense. “Burn After Reading,” however, is actually a message movie. It’s about intelligence. Not the good, personal kind, but the shadowy, scary kind that is supposed to reside in the Pentagon and CIA headquarters — the kind that is often credited with overthrowing democratic governments, and is scapegoated by an inept president.

If someone moves in America, according to “Burn After Reading,” some tragically earnest bureaucrat finds out about it through satellite video, by wiretapping, or by having us followed in sinister black sedans with heavily tinted windows. All of us are looking over our shoulders, and properly so, for gatherers of “intelligence.” If the spies know everything, as the Coen Brothers so carefully explain, how are they likely to interpret it? What are they likely to do? Is it drama or farce?

If you have liked other Coen Brothers films, you will probably like this one. If you didn’t, you won’t. It occurs to me that Coen Brothers films are only for people who have watched a lot of movies. People who seldom go aren’t as likely to appreciate the humor in scenes that have been done over and over again in serious movies. For example, the suspense and excitement engendered when the camera shows somebody’s shoes clattering down a long, empty hallway. How about seeing, in your rear view mirror, a black sedan with heavily tinted windows?

The Coen Brothers, to the glee of longtime moviegoers, are constantly poking fun at every other movie ever made, but people who haven’t been to a lot of movies are disappointed because they expect what they were supposed to have expected. Also, in Coen Brothers films, nice guys just as often finish last, and the princess hardly ever finds the prince at the ending, if there is an ending.