The future of Hollywood comedy has sometimes seemed unsafe: the terrible teens (American Pie et al.) or Eddie Murphy's latest atrocities seemed to reduce comedy on the silver screen to a matter of masturbation and massicating. But as C.S. Lewis once said, to every Sophist a Socrates is raised, or words to the same effect- and if the last years of the 20th and first years of the 21st century showed us plenty of examples of how comedy should not be done: then the Coen Brothers have provided us with a couple of examples of how comedy should be done- including their latest film, Burn after Reading.
Burn after Reading is about a CIA agent, who gets sacked, whose wife is in bed with a friend that he doesn't like. His wife steals his financial records to get an advantage in the divorce she is planning- but the lawyer's secretary manages to leave the CD containing them and other semi classified material in a gym- where they are picked up by an instructor who is dating the wife's boyfriend, and who with the help of another instructor goes down to attempt to sell these records to the sacked CIA agent and the Russian embassy. Got that? Or rather don't worry if you didn't- this has a plot that goes round in circles, up and down, and always provides another surprise. Quite simply it is in the best tradition of absurdist Hollywood comedy- sitting alongside His Girl Friday for example- both for the complexity of its plot and the intelligence of its dialogue.
Ultimately its the characters that mean you don't care that you lose the thread of Burn after Reading. They are brilliantly realised- and brilliantly absurd. Whether its John Malkovich attempting to get his revenge on his wife, dressed in a dressing gown, or Brad Pitt dancing to his stereo in a car in his suit- the characters, their actions and the actors are all perfectly aligned. If anyone has seen Pitt make a better movie then I'd like to see it- this is the kind of performance that gets Oscars. These characters are completely mad- but also completely beleivable. Another Oscar winning performance potentially, in my view, comes from Frances McDormand (amongst the best actresses in Hollywood), playing a thick gym owner who thinks she is on to the Da Vinci Code and can finally sell it to get a breast implant. Tilda Swinton is cold as a knife, George Clooney can't resist agreeing with anything in a skirt to get them into bed, and as for J.K. Simmons's part as the head of the CIA- I'm not sure there are many parts with so few lines and so many laughs in the history of cinema.
There is not a great message here- but it is wholesome comedy. Unlike Norbit say, the jokes actually run on a great truth about the human condition- we are a bit lost. We don't know what we are doing- as the CIA chief says at the end of the movie, lets not do that again, fuck knows what we did. He gets something pretty true though- the point about this film is that noone is particularly guilty- noone is particularly innocent. Everyone is muddling through and end up where they end up, thanks not to some supernatural evil plan, some genius of mendacity or even moral failure- but because they are idiots, like we all are. We can laugh at them- but we also or I also could see myself in them. I think that's what made it so funny- yes its amusing but despite the absurdity, it is also true that human beings muddle rather than plan through life.
As you would expect this is dark humour- you listen to the lines and think as the actors say them, this must make sense and realise quickly that it doesn't. There are some fine satirical touches- a wonderful plastic surgeon for example and an amazing dismissal introduce McDormand and Malkovich's characters. Partisans for divorce lawyers will not be happy and there is a scene in which Swinton confronts a difficult child with all the impatience of a busy doctor at work. But it is the absurdity that keeps the film going and the tremendous energy- this is not one of the Coens' best films by a long shot- but it beats most of the competition hands down and is well worth seeing. There isn't much to analyse- but there is a great deal to enjoy and if you have an empty evening- I'd fill it with this.