Burn After Reading's portrait of middle-aged despair
Instead of being amused, I was filled with alarm after viewing Burn After Reading because of the fun-house mirror the Coen brothers hold up to its predominantly white middle-aged audience. Twice in the film, the characters watch a fake film called Coming up Daisies starring Dermot Mulrony and Claire Danes. When the characters laugh at the same bad joke, I realized that those scenes grimly satirized me and everyone in the theater. Then I thought of the creepily quiet, studied way the Coen brothers accepted their Oscars earlier in the year for Best Director and Best Picture in relation to No Country for Old Men. What do they think of us, their audience? What kind of contempt fills their vision of grasping, insufficiently famous Americans? It is a source of great and terrible wonder.
How do the middle-aged appear in this film? Let me count the ways:
1. Body obsessed. Frances McDormand’s character, Linda Litzke’s chief motivation for her noir skullduggery is the hope of funding extensive plastic surgeries for her face, legs, butt, and belly. She also works at
2. Only capable of drinking bottled water.
4. Stuck in a loveless, adulterous marriage. As Katie (Tilda Swinton) seeks exit from her crappy marriage with Osbourne (John Malkovich), Harry seeks the same from his marriage to children’s book writer Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Katie and Harry sleep with each other.
5. Desperately single. Using a Match.com-like dating service, Linda sleeps with various married men after meeting them in a park, eating dinner out, and going to the same inane movie (Coming Up Daisies). Bleakly, after sad mechanical sex, and after the man passes out, she searches through their wallets to learn of their adultery. Ironically, Ted, the manager of
6. Sex-obsessed and paranoid. George Clooney effectively lampoons his own seductive charm by grinning his way through several loveless romances and building a dildo-enhanced mechanical chair—a concise symbol of his character Harry’s empty life. Harry also becomes increasingly paranoid that some combination of the alphabet soup (CIA, FBI, etc.) is after him.
7. Desperately angry. Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) rants against CIA officials, his wife, his blackmailers, and ultimately the entire world of morons until he attacks his old Brownstone with a hatchet. Meanwhile, when her plans do not bear fruit, Linda reacts like a cornered rat. She proves willing to sell out anyone and anything, even her country, for her plastic surgery.
In dramatic contrast to, say, The Great Lebowski, no one proves the tiniest bit sympathetic in this film, except for one oddly agreeable CIA official played by Juno’s dad J. K. Simmons. Everyone else is grasping, superficial, and soullessly loathsome. One could call Burn After Reading a comedy, but I found it too grim a portrait of middle-aged drift to do anything but go home filled with nameless dread.