Bright Lights Film Journal

Linda, Harry, and the Pseudo-Screw: Burn After Reading: The Coen Brothers’ DC Story

“Burn After Reading holds the notable distinction of being the only screwball comedy to leave all of its characters either moderately satisfied or dead.”

Anyone familiar with early talkies must admit that the screwball has fallen on hard times. We seem to have molted the essence of this genre from our cinematic corpus, and maybe evolution alone is to blame. The screwball, especially in Hollywood, was the logical answer to the superannuation of hardcore slapstick after the silent era’s last inaudible gasp. I mean this quite literally; where slapstick tests an audience’s limit for sadism within the context of theatrical dexterity (stressing the performer and his blunders), screwball is a test of logic, of probabilistic abuse (stressing, and stressing out, the mind). The trick is to keep the audience laughing at unlikelihood while never fully stooping to doubt the possibility of a character that inane, or a comedy of errors that farcical, or a plot device that left-fieldian (or Freudian — the screwball is the territory of baby cougars, Amazonian snakes, mischievous apes, and lemurs who cannot be kept out of holes). The screwball is a brief bus ride away from magical realism: smoke rings rise triumphantly from small camps on the borders of the possible; the probable is slapped in the face with a cream pie. Forget actual physical acrobatics, it’s the plot that does a pratfall.

That so many screwballs today should return to the sadistic tendencies of slapstick, and without the much-needed fresh air of melodrama, is an odd but modern phenomenon. We laughed at Chaplin and Keaton and especially Lloyd because they were sympathetic — they won us over with treacle while taking the by-proxy beatings of everyman, in the manner of buffoon messiahs. The goal of a Ben Stiller performance, on the other hand — the protagonist of more pseudo-screwballs than are worth naming — is to test the limits of our discomfit at seeing a “star” so humiliated in his quest for whatever the goal might be, mostly sex (cf There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, Zoolander, etc). It’s an emotionalist approach to screwball that is entirely unsatisfying. Rather than waiting with pregnant smirks on our faces to see how zany things can get, we’re constantly trying to bail the main character out of his pain (i.e., “Why would someone react like that to such a minuscule faux pas?” or “Why would anyone go to such lengths to prove x, y, or z?”). Screwballs by their very nature should be a little painful to watch, but this should take the form of splitting sides rather than splitting hairs. The not-so-worthwhile goal of the pseudo-screwball is embarrassment, and not even in the culturally challenging manner of a Monty Python or Kids in the Hall.

The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a brief resurgam cry for true screwball, from directors such as Pedro Almodovar (Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), the Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona), and finally David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster). It is telling that all three have almost completely lapsed from the genre, much as film as a history did. Pedro is now in the market for screwball (i.e., melo-) dramas, and Russell is hawking philio-political satires that make us hungry for Eric Rohmer. The Coens, however, have morphed into a decidedly different beast, more or less inventing the “meta-screwball” from the residual artifacts of much funnier comedy directors. But in the Coens’ films we do find two genuine screwball traits I thought had gone extinct with Preston Sturges’ last masterpiece: namely, the ability to remain witty even when incomprehensible, and a stubborn refusal to focus the jagged lines of verisimilitude and far-fetched fantasia. Still, the latter also plays into their “meta”-game: rather than push the believability envelope to create comedic tension — such as in Monkey Business, where we don’t for a minute accept that a haphazardly-mixed elixir can turn Cary Grant or Ginger Rogers into infantile baboons — the Coens “float” their content between the real world and the world that can only be swallowed whole with an epigrammatic chaser like “What Happens in Film Stays in Film.” The effect on the audience is often as bewildering as it is funny. It’s a hyper-real world where hired criminals are either bug-eyed or lumbering and dispense of bodies in the least efficient manner possible (echoed later with throaty menace by Anton Chigurh). Men and Women fall in and out of love as readily as the mixed-up mortals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Screamings come across the sky in the form of bearded bikers sporting cartoon woodpeckers on their arms where the names of old, lost fucks should be.

Burn After Reading, the dapper duo’s (right) first since No County for Old Men, is an adequate enough playbook for both the virtues and handicaps of the two above traits, perhaps the first of their films to be overwhelmed with these indulgences simultaneously. I’d chalk it up to inebriation from their Oscar win, but they wrote the screenplay to this and No Country before either film began production. We feel throughout Burn After Reading that we’re watching something funny: the one-liners cut through the air unfettered, smooth as silenced shotgun rounds. But we’re more assured of the humorous intentions than the situations that are supposed to be producing the humor — like the sensation of dutifully making love to one whom you only find mildly arousing (is it at all significant that at least two of the characters in Burn After Reading find themselves in this precise situation?). The pleasure is skin deep and requires more of one’s own private embellishment than preferable.

For starters, the brothers have fitted their screw/spy comedy with a premise so knotted it would make Sturges himself genuflect. A low-clearance CIA man, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), loses his throne in the “Balkans” project, quits in protest, and much to the chagrin of his adulterating, children’s author spouse Katie (Tilda Swinton), commits to writing his memoirs part-time (post-occupational drinking and boob tubing fill up the remainder of the work week). Katie, also in protest, means to run off secretly with her Treasury agent lover Harry (played by George Clooney as a lover in general, not just hers), so at the behest of her lawyers she copies to CD-ROM all of Cox’s financial files and, of course, the memoirs. In other words, she “burns after reading”: probably the movie’s most successful joke.

What occurs after this — the impetus for the odd flailing of the plot — is even more complicated, and a good example of how the traditional, mathematical/logical approach to screwball is a delicate balancing act. A paralegal assisting Katie’s divorce lawyer misplaces a copy of the CD-ROM at her local gym, inadvertently converting the disc into a Promethean offering for two “exercise professionals.” Indeed, Chad — played by Brad Pitt as a kind of “not-even-bright-enough-to-be-jock” — and Linda — Frances McDormand’s middle-aged vain simpleton — view the contents of the CD-ROM like the aborigines view the coke bottle in the opening to The Gods Must Be Crazy. They have no clue as to the information’s value, but, transfixed over the confidential aura of such a foreign object, they plan to appropriate the heavenly gift into their own designs. They place dead-of-night phone calls to Cox (who becomes increasingly more irascible — funnier? — as the film progresses), mumbling passive-aggressive faux-noir demands that confuse concepts such as opportunism and out-and-out blackmail. “I am only a Good Samaritan,” says Chad, mimicking the tone of a second-rate deep throat. But Mr. CIA fails to deliver any finder’s fee aside from a sucker punch into Chad’s nose during a brief meeting (Brad Pitt’s performance is painfully overwrought, but he does nail with puppy dog eyes the ego bruising of mice-brained men with gang aglay schemes). So the stalwart dyad seek to unload the CD-ROM for a sum elsewhere — namely, their local Russian embassy. Which leads to an anachronistic Cold War joke that’s a bit of an effort to fully comprehend to the point of laughter.

The rule with most humor is that the need to explain it eradicates the point; it creates a dead zone between the audience and the joke that must be bridged with deliberation, precluding the laughter. But the thrill of the best screwballs is that they catapult themselves over this dead zone with a further layer of humor. The punch — especially with a film like Arsenic and Old Lace or even the virtually plotless Duck Soup — is that in attempting to decipher the story at hand, the audience proves themselves fools. The tangled mess of unlikelihood works both as a series of individual jokes and a broader, full scale put-on when viewed from above (try reading any attempt at a brief Internet synopsis of a complex screwball and this will become apparent quickly). The Coens clearly relish capitalizing on this screwball characteristic; I remember only isolated scenes from Intolerable Cruelty and hardly any of the story . . . it involved lawyers, right? But the middle of Burn After Reading buckles under the weight of exposition, giving the third act a top-heavy sluggishness. We feel the Coens recognizing this in the form of cutaways to CIA agents higher on the totem pole than Cox (one played by J. K. Simmons, above, my nominee for the best “scoff” in today’s male acting). The cleverly meta idea here is that the CIA has dispatched undercover agents to observe the entire maelstrom (although the “leak” of Cox’s files is imperiously guffawed at) while their superiors exchange woodenly laconic words meant to both explain and trivialize the incredulousness of what we’re seeing.

But these mouthpieces for the audience’s befuddlement (and, we feel, the Coens’) come across as borderline condescension. Imagine Sam Elliott’s character in The Big Lewboski (a much better, much funnier, and much more serpentine film) addressing us in the same manner. And furthermore, the events of the movie hinge on a perplexing confluence of situations that crack more smiles on paper than on the screen — the paralegal just happens to leave the CD-ROM behind; the gym employees that retrieve it just happen to be clueless A-holes; the small detail that the Cold War had ended just happens to be lost on these clueless A-holes, leaving them to innocently assume that treason is still possible with the Russians; Linda and Harry, the Treasury agent, just happen to find each other on the same Internet dating site (a plot line still unexcavated herein). The list of grievances continues to build with improbable intensity as the microcosm of idiocy — stationed in our nation’s capital, bien sûr! — slowly implodes. The result is that we’re forced to suspend our disbelief even during scenarios that seem plausible, just out of habit.

The sticky web of social inter- (and dis-) connectedness recalls more recent drama epics like Magnolia, but at a more essential level the Coens are channeling Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story — another film often criticized for its nearly repellent nebulousness. The unspeakably wealthy Wienie King just happens to be in Geraldine Jeffers’ apartment at the precise moment she needs a benefactor. The Pale and Ale Club just happens to be traveling on her train, along with the awkward (but also unspeakably wealthy) John D. Hackensacker III, who just happens to also be seeking a mate with whom to share his fortune. And the film’s ending features either Sturges’ worst or best contrivance ever: the pat consolidation of a love rectangle by the addition of identical twins. It’s Sturges’ screwiest screwball, and a fine extension of the arm to pluck at classical comic traditions suggesting that a nonsensical plot in comedy is fine, so long as there’s a deus ex machina toward the end to allow the audience a return to normalcy (also, it’s good to end comedies with a marriage — and damn the expense to the story’s believability!). The grotesque hedonism and hubris of the Pale and Ale Club, along with the frantic poor and decadent rich, further copy Greek drama.

The Coens also mirror this neo-classicism, though they borrow more from Greek tragedy — the most graphically violent moments in Burn After Reading, for example, are narrated off-screen by a “chorus” of CIA agents who seem complacently superior to (yet baffled by) the traffic of events. And at the soft center of the film’s crust is a woman — Frances McDormand’s Linda — on a mission just as frivolous as Geraldine Jeffers’ and just as earth-scorching as Medea’s. Convinced that her aging, unwed body can no longer be leveraged in the human bargain for true love, Linda desperately seeks funds for a battery of plastic surgeries (her prospective surgeon’s clinical yet delicate dissection of her body’s flaws offers some of the film’s most genuine laughs). And much like Geraldine Jeffers, Linda views “love” as logically irrelevant — or, at least, subordinate — to the inherent virtues of self-betterment. Jeffers saw this as financial security, the one thing her husband (Joel McCrea) couldn’t offer her; Linda, however, seems to want the surgery so she can ensnare a companion for the sake of ensnaring one. Like most anti-heroines, she is ever in pursuit of the upper hand, especially over men. At the outset of the grand scheme, Linda feels like a tangential character — it’s Chad who finds the CD-ROM and plots the blackmail (in so many words) — but at every moment where sobriety threatens to rattle these characters into something resembling responsibility, Linda’s reckless gumption — not to mention air-headedness — knocks them back in the Coens’ meta-screwball carnival of chaos. She (unknowingly) sends two eager assistants to their deaths in her mercilessly self-driven quest, shedding sincere tears after the fact not for their loss but for hers. She asks with infantile frustration what kind of Mickey Mouse embassy the Russian diplomat is running while offering him espionage that only Boris and Natasha would salivate over.

In the end, this film belongs to — which is to say that it lives and dies by — McDormand and Clooney, Burn After Reading‘s confused Jeffers couple. They not only turn in the most entertaining performances (their MacGuffin of a scene built around a homemade sex toy is priceless), but they also achieve the closest thing to meaningful chemistry (although the piss-and-vinegar/sad-sack divorce subplots have some lovely, wounding moments, especially with Swinton). Is it a coincidence that they’re the two most decorated Coen veterans? Look at the neophytes. Malkovich’s bellowing bowling ball, who somehow believes himself the Voice of Reason, all too often appears to be acting from a script. Pitt overdoes his man-boy dumbbell to the point where his potentially shocking death scene feels both unfair and just at the same time. Part of the blame for this, however, must fall on the writer(s) of the yarn, since Richard Jenkins’ sweet putz (in love with Linda but not enough of a catch for either of them to kid themselves) meets the same fate with far more nihilist ferocity. The dispatching of these benefactors (though they’re closer to minions) is a cruel twist: Sturges didn’t feel the need to whack his Wienie King, though he might have been just as foolishly good-hearted. Yet another ironclad rule of screwball necessitates sympathetic and plausible performers, which is how a far-fetched film like the aforementioned Monkey Business pulls off its lunacy: we like Grant and Rogers too much to not let them get away with it.

Though little more than a glorified sidebar, the relationship between McDormand and Clooney provides a much-needed comedic ballast for the film’s second half. Linda and Harry meet on an Internet dating site (which they both prowl mechanically for sex with the hopeless intention of boosting their self-esteem), and their casual relationship closes the final loop in the degree of separation chart, speeding the plot to whatever degree of finality the Coens will allow. Linda and Harry alone also fulfill the final screwball prophecy of Sturges’ Palm Beach Story, which states that all the primary characters must in some way get what they want (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, etc). The final joke on the audience is that we don’t feel as though the characters here deserve much of anything. The much-debated last scene of Burn After Reading consists of the CIA Superiors spouting denouement for our benefit, and while the wink we feel the Coens giving us should act as appropriate punctuation, we’re too far downstream to experience anything but an ironic tug. The “tugging” or “jolting” sensation is accentuated even more by the transition from the last scene to the credit sequence: a digital effect draws us out of the CIA Headquarters and up. We peer down at the loony earth from Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator as it hurtles us into space.

Burn After Reading holds the notable distinction of being the only screwball comedy to leave all of its characters either moderately satisfied or dead. That the bodies seem more like sacrificial trimmings from a fatty plot than real human beings is both a sly film-school joke and a reminder that while the Coens can muster the humanism for an Oscar nod every now and then, their best contributions in the last decade have been genre-for-the-sake-of-genre studies. Which is perhaps why it’s a fool’s errand to criticize them for not making Comedies with a capital C. The meta-screwball was designed to comment on the screwball — our entertainment, not to mention laughter, is an afterthought. The Coens are less interested in furthering Sturges’ distinct cinematic prowess than they are in chewing on his archetypes and plot formulas, periodically opening their mouths for the audience’s benefit (perhaps we can call this a “C”-, or “see”-film?). As a critic, I can relate to this — even applaud it — and like their masterpieces, Burn After Reading is a pleasure to debate, speculate, pontificate about. But what, precisely, are films for? Don’t be so sure you know the answer.