Rewatching the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading on DVD, I think I enjoyed it even more than I did when I saw it in the theater and reviewed the film this past fall. Like many of the Coens’ comedies, it’s one of those movies that gets better with repeated viewings. Little throwaway phrases suddenly become hilarious because of their absurdity, or because of their delivery. The brothers wrote these parts specifically for the actors who play them, and that collaboration clearly shows. Often times, their lines are ones that would be hilarious only in those specific hands. For example, a cocktail party conversation about goat cheese and acid reflux has could be very boring... but in the hands of John Malkovich and George Clooney, it becomes absolutely hilarious, purely thanks to their specific line deliveries. They’re not delivering jokes; they’re just having an average, boring cocktail party conversation. But the combination of the Coens’ dialogue and those particular actors’ deliveries somehow form the perfect comedic nexus. Every performance is perfectly nuanced, and every character ideally conceived.
Cosutme designer Mary Zophres has some interesting comments as well, many pertaining to that knucklehead. "How do you make Brad Pitt look like a dork?" she asks, highlighting one of the main challenges of her job. And for people who believe that costume designers don’t have much to do on modern-day pictures, she also provides some pointed insight on the importance of her craft, tracing the arc of Malkovich’s character via his clothes. "It’s the complete demise of a character through his wardrobe," she says, referring to his journey from prim and proper three-piece suits with bowties when he works at the CIA to drunkenly, angrily storming around in his bathrobe and underwear by the end of the movie. "He just lets himself go."
It’s not just the clothes, of course, that make the man in a Coen Brothers movie; the hair always plays a key role as well. "We frequently give actors haircuts that they have to somehow disguise during their off-camera moments for the duration of the show," Joel proudly reveals, referring to Pitt’s hideous frosted pompadour. Finally, Frances McDormand answers the question that everybody wonders about seeing this movie: what did she think when her husband, Joel Coen, first showed her the script and she saw that the part he’d written for her begins: "Close up on a woman’s ass. Bare. White. Middle-aged." You’ll have to check out the feature for that reaction, though...
Malkovich disagrees slightly, explaining that "the character I play is not a spy; he’s an analyst. So I wouldn’t really say it’s a spy movie. It’s just more about the real world colliding with some tiny part of that world." The collision, of course, is where the real humor comes from. (Well, that and Pitt’s wonderfully exaggerated idiocy!) And that’s what the Coen Brothers thrive on. It’s great to have an intelligent spy comedy from these filmmakers, and even better that it turned out to be so good. I’d rank Burn After Reading among the brothers’ top three films... and among my own favorites of 2008.