TORONTO - Everyone in Joel and Ethan Coen's (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink) new movie, Burn After Reading, has issues. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a hot-headed C.I.A. operative whose drinking problem leads to his dismissal. In order to take revenge, he sets out to write his memoir, a word he can't even pronounce correctly. Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is a U.S. Marshall so bored with his wife, he takes to the internet to meet desperate middle-aged women. All the while, he's having an affair with Osborne's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton).
Hell, even Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a woman who works at the local gym, has such low self-esteem, she's willing, with a little help from her co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt), to try to sell a CD-ROM of C.I.A. information she finds in the women's locker room to Russians, in order to get money for plastic surgery operations her health insurance won't cover. While the film works on one level as a spy movie, its characters are far too damaged to fit the types that generally inhabit that genre. And yet despite all the dysfunctional relationships, Burn is a whimsical affair that represents a real departure from last year's nihilistic No Country for Old Men, which won the filmmakers their first Academy Award.
"We sorta wanted to do a spy movie," Joel Coen explains at a press conference last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival, while sitting at a table with brother Ethan and stars Malkovich, Swinton and Pitt. "It didn't exactly turn out that way. That was one of the original ideas. It's not meant to be a comment on Washington. It's really about these particular characters."
The movie's plot surrounds Linda Litzke, who's roughly modeled on Monica Lewinsky confidant Linda Tripp. After a CD-ROM she thinks is top-secret shows up at the gym, Litzke sees it as an opportunity to get together the cash she needs for the operation to remove the gut she says hangs in front of her "like a shopping cart with a bent wheel." When her attempts to bribe Osborne go horribly awry, she takes the disc to the Russian Embassy and attempts to strike a deal with them. That just leads to more trouble, and she and Chad soon find themselves in hot water.
"A lot of our movies are about dolts and knuckleheads," admits Ethan. "I don't know why that is. Maybe it's just because it seems to go somewhere in terms of the story. If everyone knows what they're doing and are very capable, what's going to happen? It's more interesting if it's a surprise." Malkovich, whose character is constantly cursing and flying off the handle, agrees.
"I would never say a character is more or less intelligent than I am," he says. "I don't think in those terms. I read what they do and if the writing is good, it gives you a clear notion as to what they do. There's a give and take as to how they work and view things, and how you do. You develop a kind of language. I never think, 'Oh, is this man brighter or less bright than I am?'"
"It's much more fun to play the guys who make the wrong choices, have limited experiences and have the wrong assumptions and have to deal with it from there," he says.
All the actors describe the Coen brothers as ideal writer-directors in that they're very attentive and their writing stands heads and shoulders above that of other writer-directors (Swinton says the script is so "rock solid," "you mess with it at your own peril").
"Among the things that for me were delightful is that you're working with people who have done very fine things," Malkovich says of making Burn. "That's always exciting, inspiring and calming. Partially because there are two [directors], nothing gets out of the infield. Things are noticed and seen and talked about. That's not always the case. You can go days and days wondering if the director saw that take or any other take and do they have any opinion whatsoever. [The Coens] are always watching, and that's not as normal as you think it might be."