Burn After Reading looks and sounds like a spy thriller: self-consciously dramatic score; many shots of dark-suited legs walking briskly down anonymous, sterile hallways at CIA headquarters; convoluted plot packed with deception and betrayal. But this is Coen brothers movie (and one of their “idiot” movies at that), so despite the slick trappings, Burn After Reading is always off-kilter, not out-and-out farce but not quite right, either.
The preview gives away all the best laughs, but even if the gags weren’t spoiled, the bleak undercurrent mutes some of the hilarity. Supposedly Joel and Ethan Coen wrote Burn concurrently with No Country for Old Men, their Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation, and if that’s not true, it should be: the same creeping nihilism permeates both films. In No Country, Kelly Macdonald’s breathtaking final scene pushes back against some of the darkness, but Burn revels in its own pointlessness and amorality to the very end. It’s funny, and it features some amusing performances, but it leaves behind a disconcerting void.