The Brothers Coen do comedy like few others do: they do it in such a way that, half the time you don’t even realize that you should be laughing your ass off. This sort of statement would normally be an insult. With the Coens, it is simply a statement of fact, and a sort of compliment.
In Burn After Reading, they assemble an enviable cast in the service of a plot that seems quite serious (even the background score is suitably dramatic) until you realize that, when you wish to summarize it, you can’t get past “So there’s this guy…”
(I used to love writing long sentences in school. Even wrote a hundred-word answer on Mother Teresa’s service to humanity in three sentences, the second of which had 68 words. Some habits die hard.)
The beauty of it is, these serious plot developments involve characters who are utterly insignificant, even though they don’t realize it. The more they stay serious, the funnier it all gets. And all the while, an ominous background score plays in the background, and a mysterious black car keeps tailing one of the major characters. Most screwball comedies involve characters who are utterly serious about what they are trying to do, even if the world and its grandmother-in-law knows it’s crazy. This is no different, but the Coens pitch the proceedings at such a peculiarly serious note that you’re almost afraid to laugh, lest you be blamed for not taking it seriously.
Sometimes, a master criminal cannot resist confessing to his crime just so that the world would know he did it. The Coens seem to have succumbed to the same temptation by putting in a ridiculously simple plot device — scenes where a CIA honcho is trying to explain the plot developments to his boss, without much success. The boss is played by J. K. Simmons, who deserves an Oscar simply for not laughing out loud. By the time the last of those briefings came around, I pretty much began laughing as soon as the scene began and was guffawing by the end of it.
Chubb: Jesus. Jesus f***ing Christ. What did we learn, Palmer?
Palmer: I don’t know, sir.
Chubb: I don’t f***ing know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
Palmer: Yes sir.
Chubb: Although I’m f***ed if I know what we did.
Palmer: Yes sir. Hard to say.
Chubb [shaking his head]: Jesus. Jesus f***ing Christ.