I think maybe I’ve figured out how Joel and Ethan Coen do it. How they move so effortlessly from comedy to drama, from fluffy to forceful, from silly to solemn. It’s that they don’t think about tone or genre, at least not at the beginning: they just think about a character, and let him have his lead, and see where he takes them. A brilliant but heartless killer like Anton Chigurh is going to naturally take them in one direction, and so we get No Country for Old Men. And a bubbleheaded knuckleknob like Chad Feldheimer is going to naturally take them in another direction, and so we get Burn After Reading, which is as gloriously zany as Country was brutally vicious.
It seems perfectly plain, when looked at it from this perspective, that there’s no mystery about the Coens’ genius for crossing genres. Not that I’m suggesting that genius is now going to be easily reproducible, because — ha! — nobody is like the Coens (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Blood Simple). But for some reason it’s suddenly clear to me that the Coens aren’t about genre: they’re about people. Chad is one of those grand force-of-nature characters, like Chigurh, who cannot help but be at the center of something extraordinary — it just so happens that where he goes when he takes the reins is into a magnificent load of nonsense, a glorious madness that leaves you pondering the human capacity for being an enormous lunkhead, rather than into a gloomy bloodbath that makes you question the worth of humanity. But, you know, same difference, really.
The Coens do comedy with the same level of intensity as they do drama, and in Burn that comes through in the mock-thriller atmosphere they create, the hilariously melodramatic score and the long shots as if through binoculars or a surveilling camera lens — it’s all dark sedans parked down the street and paranoia that pricks at your soul and cunning intrigue. Well, not so cunning, perhaps, for this is all being done by, or done to, a cadre of some of the dumbest, sweetest people you will ever meet on film. Yeah, it’s about Chad the dimbulb fitness instructor who finds a disc containg the memoirs of a CIA agent that he thinks he can turn this to his financial favor. But the plot that spins from that — and, indeed, the plot that spins before that, that gets the story to that point — is so wickedly convoluted that I don’t know how I would even begin to attempt explaining it, which I wouldn’t do anyway because the brainy buzz you get from Burn comes in seeing how the Coens move us through their perfectly constructed maze of a plot to get to that delicious hunk of cheese at the center of it.
The point is: Chad is only the beginning. Oh my goodness yes, Brad Pitt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), as Chad, is marvelously goofy, and steals the movie from a whole cast of movie-stealers. But all of these characters are, though it sounds contradictory, as genuinely human as they are wonderfully cartoonish: Harry Pfarrer the U.S. marshal (George Clooney: Michael Clayton, Ocean’s Thirteen), who’s going to be labeled a womanizer but really just seems to look on sex as another physical exercise he’s addicted to; Chad’s coworker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Something’s Gotta Give), whose middle-aged loneliness has pushed her to the desperation of Internet dating; their boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins: Step Brothers, The Kingdom), who yearns for Linda from afar; Osborne Cox (John Malkovich: Beowulf, Eragon), the CIA operative writing his memoirs out of boredom after he’s been pushed out of the agency; and Cox’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton: Prince Caspian, Michael Clayton), who… well, she might be nothing more than a cartoon sketch of a bitch on wheels, but she’s a sublimely riotous one. (David Rasche [Flags of Our Fathers, United 93] and J.K. Simmons [Rendition, Juno] as CIA officers and Cox’s superiors have smaller roles, but don’t let that stop them from making the absurd most of them.)
There’s a screenwriting maxim that one should always craft a story that’s about the most important thing that has ever happened or will ever happen to your characters, and maybe it’s just that I always fall so madly in love with the Coens — again — with their every film that it seems to me now that only their films appear to bear that maxim in mind. Linda, for one: pretty much the only thing she wants out of life is to get some plastic surgery to “repair” the perceived flaws of her body, which must, of course, be the only things keeping her love life on the backburner. And the Coens and McDormand play that with all the urgency and fervor of an Austen heroine, making it funny and sad at the same time. When you discover what Harry is building in his basement… well, you’ll see that this is a man desperate to share his passions: he’s not selfish, and he’s far from thoughtless. He’s just clueless, but pleasantly so.
I’m tempted to call this the first national-security comedy — I know there was that 2003 movie called National Security, but it starred Martin Lawrence and hence could not possibly have been funny — but this isn’t really about national security, and the disc with the CIA secrets is just a MacGuffin. Burn After Reading is about people… very very stupid people doing very very stupid things, as performed by very very smart people being very very clever about it. In fact, it’s probably the smartest movie ever about stupidity.