Around the same time that they were adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel into the screenplay for No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan were kicking around another idea. As an exercise, they wrote characters for some of their favorite actors: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand (who also happens to be Joel’s wife). All of the characters that they came up with were uniquely stupid, delusional, and/or narcissistic.
To give their pack of idiots a playground, the Coens constructed a spy thriller plot — “mostly because we’d never done one before”. The resulting script became Burn After Reading, released in 2008. As with many of their films (The Big Lebowski, Fargo), Burn After Reading uses the narrative framework of a serious genre but populates it with characters that you don’t normally see in that genre, creating humorous juxtapositions.
Burn After Reading mirrors No Country’s pessimism, presenting inevitable suffering, failure and death in a farcical rather than purely dramatic context. The thematic parallels allow the films to work companion pieces, similarly to the complementary pairing of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.
The story begins with the rage of Osbourne Cox (John Malcovich), a low-level CIA analyst who is fired from his job for being an alcoholic. Convinced that his dismissal was a political “crucifixion,” Cox tells everyone that he quit, and decides to shore up his self-worth by writing a “memoir”. Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) takes the firing as an opportunity to divorce Cox and continue to sleep with Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney), a clueless deputy U.S. Marshall. She gives her divorce lawyer a CD containing Cox’s personal financial information, and incidentally, a copy of his in-progress memoir. The divorce lawyer’s assistant abandons the CD in the ladies locker room of Hardbodies, a local gym. It’s picked up by Linda Litsky, a self-obsessed gym manager, and her dim-witted but endlessly positive associate, Chad Feldheimer. The pair mistake the innane contents of the CD for government secrets, and plot a blackmail scheme to extort Osbourne Cox and get rich, mostly so that Linda can pay for a slate of cosmetic procedures.
Events spiral in typical anarchic Coen fashion, with each character making their respective situation worse with their delusions and paranoia about what’s actually happening. Cox is convinced that he’s actually being blackmailed, which he isn’t, and Chad and Linda believe they’re actually blackmailing him, which they’re not. They’re children playing make-believe, but with real death as the consequence of their shenanigans.
On the surface, Burn After Reading isn’t exactly groundbreaking in terms of characterization — writing morons is kind of the Coens’ brand. But never has the pathology of idiocy come into sharper relief than they are here. The problem isn’t just that these people are stupid — stupid people are able to not kill anyone and go about their lives just fine. The real problem here is narcissism, coupled with an utter lack of self-awareness.
John Malcovich’s Osbourne Cox provides the key example, as his delusional and selfish behavior is what drives the plot forward. He’s so privileged that he’s lost all grasp on reality. Despite his Princeton education, he’s the stupidest person because he actively believes that he’s very smart and that he’s fighting against stupidity.
Cox’s belief in his intelligence is so central to his identity that he’ll literally kill to protect it. The other characters have beliefs that they cling to similarly — Linda that her body is the most important thing about her, Harry that he’s loved and desired by every woman in his life, even the one he’s cheating on. Their blind adherence to these beliefs is what makes them so stupid.
The only characters who aren’t obsessed with their own perceived identities are Brad Pitt’s Chad and Richard Jenkins’ Ted, both of whom are devoted to Linda and both of whom end up dead.
The film offers an effective and hilarious framing device in the form of meetings between Osbourne’s ex-boss Palmer (David Rache) and the boss’s unnamed director (J.K. Simmons). The pair’s nonplussed bafflement as they try to track the insane series of events serve to punctuate the themes that Burn After Reading shares with No Country For Old Men.
“We don’t really know what anyone is after.”
“Not really, sir.”
Osbourne, Harry, Linda and Chad all believe that their pursuits have meaning, but when viewed from this outside perspective, it’s easy to see that the results of their combined actions form a morass of destructive chaos.
“Report back to me when, uh… I dunno. When it makes sense.”
The second meeting between Palmer and the director brings the film to an abrupt end that resembles the closing scene of No Country, where Ed Tom Bell reflects on his retirement from police work after failing to defeat or understand Anton Chigurh. It’s a lot funnier, but it leaves us with a remarkably similar sense of irresolution:
J.K. Simmons’ character is clearly used to dealing with crime, but what he witnessed here is so random and pointless he can’t point to any salient takeaway from the experience:
“What did we learn, Palmer?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
Sometimes things just happen. No one gets what they want, no one gets what they deserve, and no one learns a lesson.
- Best John Malcovich moment: emphatic cruciform arm gestures while screaming “THIS is a CRUCIFIXION!”.
- Related John Malcovich moment: “F*ck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon! Next to you, we ALL have a drinking problem”.
- Can’t forget to mention — John Malcovich’s pronunciation of the word “memoir” as “memoiah”.
- Best Tilda Swinton moment: while hammering on a table, “I DON’T HAMMER”.
- Best Brad Pitt moment – “You think it’s a Schwinn!!!”
- Best George Clooney quirk: his interest in flooring. “What is this, pine?”
- He’s never referred to by name in the dialogue, but J.K. Simmons’ character is called “Gardner Chubb” in the script.