In 1996, the Coen Brothers put out Fargo, a morose and depressing and fucking hilarious movie. Fargo snagged a couple of Oscars, but it also did something way more important: Following the lead of films like Pulp Fiction and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Fargo helped kick independent cinema into the mainstream. One would think it'd be impossible to follow up such a landmark picture, but two years later, the Coens gave us The Big Lebowski—a film that, for our generation at least, needs no introduction.
Fast forward more or less a decade, when the Coens took Cormac McCarthy's intense, brutal, and gorgeous novel No Country for Old Men and turned it into an intense, brutal, and gorgeous film, snagging a few more Oscars in the process. And once again, the question: How the shit are they going to follow that?
Yet here we are, a year later, with Burn After Reading—a dark comedy that, like Lebowski, cares little for what's come before. Burn After Reading trades in No Country's desolate Texan vistas for the mansions of Washington, DC's upper crust, and instead of a vicious hitman played by Javier Bardem, it features a dim-witted fitness instructor played by Brad Pitt. In other words, it's not a follow-up at all, really: It's just the Coens' next film, and it's predictably unpredictable, and it's predictably great.
Pitt's character, the dorky, giddy Chad Feldheimer, is only one of Burn After Reading's slew of players: Chad works at a DC gym called Hardbodies with the lonely Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). When Chad and Linda stumble upon a cryptic disc filled with what appears to be classified information, they're soon wrapped up in the world of frustrated ex-CIA employee Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), whose frigid wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is sleeping around on him with affable manslut Harry Pfarrer, who's played by (who else?) George Clooney. Other vital players include more CIA agents (including the always great J.K. Simmons), shady Russians, a divorce lawyer or two, a children's book author, and a self-powered dildo machine.
Like a Jason Bourne flick filtered through Dr. Strangelove, Burn After Reading more or less serves as an excuse for the Coens to play around with the clichés and charms of the espionage genre, while also having fun with the same sort of sad, aimless, and fantastically funny characters that usually populate their films. Chad and Linda are the sort of dumbasses who refine their blackmail scheme at Jamba Juice; Harry's jovial, grinning obliviousness masks his soul-killing reality; and all of the film's unforeseen, labyrinthine twists prove appropriately, winkingly confusing—not only for the audience, but also for the film's lackadaisical CIA spooks.
Admittedly, Burn After Reading isn't a fantastic Coen Brothers film—it takes a while to find its footing, and even for a movie that's supposed to be somewhat inscrutable, the whole thing's messy almost to the point of distraction. But those are just ridiculously small quibbles—ultimately, Burn After Reading is still a very good Coen Brothers film, which means it still blows just about everything else out of the water, and will probably continue to do so until the brothers' next project, in 2009.