One feels that thinking on a film by the Coen brothers, especially a comedy, is a fruitless exercise. Those guys design their work in such a way that it’s not merely immune to navel-gazing, it actually mocks the navel-gazers. And bless their hearts for it. As David Bazan has sung:
With your reviews
Of what other people do.
How satisfying that must be for you.
So, there shall be no Postmodern, Freudian, Marxist, or Platonic readings of this film. The Coens have had their fun by making the movie; that’s enough.
With No Country For Old Men, the Coens focused on a dark and violent drama and inserted moments of humor. The humor is not what the viewer tends to expect in a film of this genre, so it’s hard to laugh at the first screening. With Burn After Reading, the Coens inverted the formula: lots of comedy punctuated by shocking violence. One of the wonderful things about these guys is how, in either film, the darkness is taken in stride by human idiocy, making it more absurd than dark. Absurdity is the point of the film, as its bookends tell us. The conclusion at Langley features J.K. Simmons’ character trying to find a moral to their story. After he briefly thinks he’s found one, he realizes that the CIA didn’t actually do anything. There are many reviews out there saying things to the effect of: “Burn After Reading may be from the Coen brothers, but it’s no No Country For Old Men.” The funny thing is, these movies are essentially very similar.
There’s a superficial level of similarity, first. Both have characters, motivated by greed, trying to acquire money that is not rightfully theirs. Things become complicated when other characters who are entitled to the money/possessions attempt to get back what’s theirs. People senselessly die. Law enforcement officials are at a standstill as to what to do about it all. (Some will see strong similarities with Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo.)
But it’s this absurdity that’s more interesting. It’s with a very fatalistic gravitas that Tommy Lee Jones gives his closing soliloquy in No Country. The mood is a lot funnier when J.K. Simmons does the same in Burn After Reading, but it boils down to the same thing. If these two films were the work of different filmmakers, the similarity would be striking. But, auteur theory aside, both films being Coen films, the similarity is undeniable.
In No Country, Tommy Lee Jones makes the statement, “What you got, ain’t nothin’ new. Can’t stop what’s comin’. No waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” What he identifies as vain is allowed to blossom in Burn After Reading in a very literal manifestation. Chad (Brad Pitt), Linda (Frances McDormand), and Ted (the unsung Richard Jenkins) all work at a gym called “Hardbodies”. Chad is rarely seen without workout clothes and/or an iPod attached to his arm, often listening and dancing in his own world. Linda’s main goal in life is to find the money, through her insurance company or otherwise, to finance a series of cosmetic surgeries she is sure that she needs. Harry (George Clooney) professes a constant need to go for a run. When he’s feeling blue, it’s a good run that he needs more than anything else. (His last scene in the film even features him in a full sprint, though of a different sort.) Osborne (John Malkovich) becomes obsessed with working out to the rhythm of televised aerobics once he is cut off from everything he once valued in life. The drive to physical self-improvement absorbs nearly everyone in the film.
In a bit of shallow psychoanalysis, I would not be surprised if the Coens made this film as a sort of therapy after No Country. They didn’t give full reign to their trademark humor in that one, and here they have let loose. For all its complexity, it doesn’t seem like their main intention was that the film itself be complex. It contains some great themes (absurdity, vanity, and greed) that are favorites of the Coens. They are some of the best humorists in Hollywood; good enough that even their somewhat repetitive thematic obsessions always seem fresh.
UPDATE: There’s a similar, solid take on the film here.