The Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading has not been met this week with the critical hosannas that greeted No Country for Old Men. Why? Because unlike the smart and serious Oscar winner, Burn’s been described by star George Clooney as the completion of the Coens’ informal “idiot trilogy” — following O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty as comedies in which Clooney plays preening dummies. That is to say, instead of being one of the Coens’ serious movies, Burn After Reading is definitely one of their stupid ones.
But you know what? That sounds pretty great to us. Count us among the moviegoers who prefer the Coens’ cavalcade of comic dopes — the H.I. McDunnoughs, the Everett Ulysses McGills, the Norville Barneses, the Walter Sobchaks — to the characters who inhabit the Coens’ more serious efforts. Sure, the Coens’ dark dramas, populated by dogged small-town sheriffs, struggling playwrights, or intuitive assassins, are the ones that garner awards. But we’d rather watch a movie that wrings laughs from the miserable crapshoot of life than one that drums philosophy into it.
In Burn After Reading, we have the chance to enjoy a film in which the absence of good in the world is expressed mostly through Brad Pitt’s awful haircut — and, naturally, an accidental face shooting. Where does Burn After Reading fall on the register of the Coens’ comedies of buffoonery? And which of the Coens’ dumbest movies is also their best?