Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 2008).
When the Coen Brothers are in top form, as they are in their new CIA comedy Burn After Reading and last year's No Country for Old Men, it makes you wonder how they can ever do wrong. And in fact, even their relative misfires--dizzy pastiche like The Hudsucker Proxy, brittle noir like The Man Who Wasn't There, throwaway fluff like The Ladykillers--offer the viewer more intelligent visual and verbal stimulation than most other mainstream films. One of their most impressive achievements is not repeating themselves morally. More precisely, no two Coen Brothers films have the exact same moral weight, though each one has a measure that seems careful and exact.
By "moral" and "moral weight," I don't mean anything as crude as a "message." I'm thinking of more of a quantifiable ratio: a ratio of moral actions foregrounded or downplayed, emotions evoked or withheld, attitudes implied or occluded. The formula for this ratio is usually complex rather than simple, and when it is simpler, the movie is generally pitched as whimsical fantasy (Raising Arizona, Hudsucker, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). One constant or near-constant in the formula concerns the fates of the innocent, and the amount of investment in those fates the directors permit us. Depending on how it is handled, the deployment of this theme can make for tragic seriousness or comic sadism, or--most interestingly and most often--some degree of both. Even in No Country, which must be the brothers' most straight-faced dramatic production to date, the wiping of blood off a shoe confuses our trained responses, making us process horrified sadness and wry wit in the same instance.
Burn After Reading is never anything but farce, in the sense that its characters are satirical puppets. This is as true of the "sympathetic" ones as the ogres and buffoons. Or, the point is, everyone is an ogre and/or a buffoon, even the most blameless ones (including Claire Danes and Dermot Mulroney, if you can call them characters). How on earth can you care about these people? That's part of the Coens' genius in this film: you don't, but it all still works. You may find yourself hoping that certain characters fare better than others, but usually only provisionally, within the confined logic of a single scene or sequence. In No Country, the mortal consequences are felt deeply, though even there they are felt through a certain filter, an ironizing layer of textuality. In Reading, these consequences are occasion for sport, for loud belly laughter, even if it comes with a guilty hesitation. It's as funny as anything the Coens have ever done, but it's probably their most agressively nihilistic film. I'm sure many other viewers will make this same observation, but the reference point I kept returning to was Dr. Strangelove. This is most obvious in the parts that take place behind closed doors at Langley (especially the two brilliant short scenes with J.K. Simmons as a cynical superior officer), but the tone of schadenfreude throughout is of the same nervous timbre, down to the shaky sixties lettering and graphics on the movie poster. Accordingly, the global zoom-in/zoom-out visuals that frame the film seem like more than just a convenient cinematic cliche: with the accompaniment of Carter Burwell's urgent, drum-driven score, they extend the joke to something sublimely large and cruel.