“Ve are nihilists, Lebowski. Ve believe een nahthing. And tomorrow ve come back and ve cut off your johnson,” one of the three German nihilists tells the Dude in the Coen Brothers’ ingenious 1998 cult-classic The Big Lebowski.
If nihilism has always been a part of the Coens’ mental landscape (and other important pieces of late 20th century American screen art, from Seinfeld to Fight Club), it was—in the late ’90s, at the time of The Big Lebowski—objectified and made into dorky objects of ridicule even as it also flowed through their work.
But tomorrow has come. In the Coens’ latest film, Burn After Reading, nihilism—in its most arrogant, scornful and misanthropic manifestation—has indeed come back in the form of the Coens’ raison d’être, and it has cut off both of their johnsons or, at least, their balls.
Burn After Reading is a little trifle of a film that is so utterly disappointing, dispiriting, redundant, lazy and pointless that even the wink-wink ironic admission of its own meaninglessness—annunciated by a minor character at the film’s conclusion—can’t save it from being anything but a complete insult to the audience, aware, as it is, that the Coens are capable of infinitely more (last year’s Oscar-sweeping masterpiece, No Country For Old Men, for instance).
Moreover, such distracting shallowness feels out of touch (like a certain Republican presidential candidate) with the momentous times in which we live. Sheltered by accolades, acolytes and wealth, the Coens suddenly seem (as a certain Democratic presidential nominee recently said) like they just don’t get it.
Firmly in the Fargo mold of dimwits-in-over-their-heads, Burn After Reading is an espionage genre dissection, set in Washington DC, that stars Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as a pair of hapless gym employees who come upon a former CIA agent’s (John Malkovich) memoirs and who try, through moronic means, to profit from the find. Interwoven side plots twist off from there, via coincidence and contrivance, including one with an adulterous, back-rest-toting George Clooney and his main extramarital fling, an ice-queen played by Tilda Swinton.
But aside from Malkovich, who is still a pleasure to watch when he just plays himself (that is, the John Malkovich from Being John Malkovich) there is nothing to like in these thin, over-played characterizations. The talented stars beside Malkovich are either without their normal charm (McDormand: who was so great in Fargo and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day), seem as if they’re imitating roles they’ve done better elsewhere (Clooney’s fast talking charmer in O Brother, Where Art Thou? was infinitely superior) or are trying so hard to be funny that one is embarrassed for them (Pitt).
But, as the nihilists in The Big Lewbowski later say: “Ve don’t care. Ve still vant the money, Lebowski.”
Burn After Reading
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
With George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton
Dreamcatcher, UA DeVargas
96 min., R