For the last 12 years, the Coen brothers have had a problem. Twelve years ago was when they made Fargo. You see, despite the fact that it lost the Oscar to...um...hold on, let me look that up. According to IMDB the Best Picture Oscar for 1996 went to...The English Patient? Are you fucking serious? The only thing about that movie that really sticks out in my memory was Juliette Binoche's flat, wooden performance as a nurse who cared for the severely burned man who inspired the film's title and OH MY FREAKIN GOD ON A POGO STICK SHE ALSO WON AN OSCAR. I serve this up as proof that the Oscars are meaningless as standards of excellence and also proof that there is no Jesus. Quick, what movies won in the years that Apocalypse Now, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. and Pulp Fiction came out? The answer to each movie is, "Who gives a damn?"
Anyway, Fargo was one of the greatest movies ever in the history of anything and Joel and Ethan Coen were rightly hailed as movie geniuses for having written and directed it. Their problem after that was that movies they made after failed were all measured against Fargo and failed to measure up. Aside from 1994's The Ladykillers which was a genuine clunker their movies since then were at least watchable and The Big Lebowski even has a genuine cult following. Had anyone else made these movies people may have said, "Wow, these movies are pretty good," but "anyone else" didn't make them. The Fargo guys did so we expected more. Then, finally, 2007 rolled around and the Coens gave us No Country For Old Men. Again, they gave us one of the greatest movies ever in the history of anything and this one actually won the Best Picture Oscar. In addition to great characters like Ed Bell and Llewelyn Moss, we got the best screen villain since Hannibal Lecter, a living symbol of death called Anton Chigurh. And so, the Coens now have a new problem and that problem is called Burn After Reading.
Burn After Reading just doesn't come close to measuring up to the standard set by No Country. Oh sure, they're radically different. Burn After Reading is in the Light Comedy category as opposed to No Country's Hardcase Crime Drama/Holy Crap That's Scary category. They're also radically different in that No Country is in the Super Mega Excellent category while Burn After Reading falls more into the Hey, What Was That Movie We Saw Last Month That Was Made By Those Guys Who Made No Country For Old Men? Category.
When not being compared to one of the great movies on the decade, Burn After Reading is fairly decent. John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a man fired from his job as a CIA analyst because of his drinking problem so he decides to write his memoirs. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), decides to divorce him so she can be with her lover, Harry (George Clooney), who's mainly just using her for sex in the same way he uses every other woman he meets for sex. Anyway, Katie steals a disc containing Osborne's memoirs and gives them to her lawyer's secretary who promptly loses it at her gym and that's where we meet the insecure Linda (Frances McDormand), a woman who would be a cosmetic surgery addict if she could afford it and the moronic Chad (Brad Pitt), a personal trainer who, due to the fact that he's a moron, thinks it's a good idea to try and blackmail Osborne for the return of his disc. This decision leads to consequences both humorous and tragic especially for poor Chad. Let's just say that he gets way worse than he deserves.
My favorite character is played by the wonderful J.K. Simmons. He plays a high ranking member of the CIA who can't believe it when this strange, confusing and trivial situation winds up on his desk and always quickly accepts the fastest and most straightforward solutions. One character ends up in a coma? Good, deal with him when he wakes up. Another tries to skip the country and escape to Venezuela? Excellent, put him on a plane to Venezuela.
I liked Burn After Reading when I was watching it despite the fact that some crucial scenes happen off-screen and are described later as if this was some sort of Greek tragedy. This is even how the movie ends but, oh well, it's a decent movie in the middle of September so I suppose I shouldn't ask for too much.
IMDB says that the Coens currently have two other movies in production. Joel and Ethan Coen, I hereby speak for the nation when I say that they'd better be as good as No Country For Old Men. If not, we'll only let you make movies for another 12 years.