Something's happened to the Coen Brothers. Maybe it's success going to their heads (they've got my vote for Smuggest Oscar Acceptance Speech), maybe they're losing their touch, or maybe they're just plain cruel. This decade has been mostly uneven for them. There's O Brother Where Art Thou? (fun but lightweight), The Man Who Wasn't There (an underrated return-to-form), Intolerable Cruelty (intolerable, natch), The Ladykillers (forgettable), No Country for Old Men (strong moments in an overrated whole), and now there's Burn After Reading, which is the darkest and least gracious film of the Coens' careers. After watching it and No Country for Old Men, one has to wonder whether or not the Coens are growing misanthropic, nihilistic, and ugly in their middle age.
The Coens have almost always built their stories around idiots -- Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men -- and Burn After Reading is no exception. This assortment of "heroes" is the dimmest the Coens have ever created, and while that should be the recipe for Coen comedy gold, the Coens forget the element that makes their films work: sympathy. Sure, their films have always been slightly cold and self-consciously clever stunts about dumb people doing dumb things, but what made the films so engaging was that the film (and the filmmakers) seemed to have a genuine love for these people who had good intentions but lacked the brains to carry them out correctly.
The characters in Burn After Reading are short on both brains and good intentions, and the film offers them no sympathy or redemption. If the audience does get any kicks out of the film, they come from feeling intellectually superior to the characters and taking pleasure in their failure. In this film, the Coens seem to have contempt for the characters, monogamy, the government, and the general populace. They now look at goofiness not as something to smile at but as something to punish.
By the end of the film, it's uncertain whether or not the audience is lumped in with the characters -- we're given nothing except the feeling that everything we just experienced was really meaningless. In short, Burn After Reading doesn't give a crap about anyone in it or anyone watching it. As much as it pains me to say this about two filmmakers I admire, it seems as though the Coens have to make everyone in this film completely stupid and pathetic in order to shed light on the only geniuses in the film: the Coen Brothers.
This could explain the sudden ultraviolent streak in Burn After Reading as well as the overall nihilism of No Country for Old Men. The Coens have always used fatal violence in their films, and while it hasn't always been used seriously, there's something different, something meaner about the violence in their two latest films (Miller's Crossing comes to mind as a film that balances using violence for irony and drama). Burn After Reading (and No Country) seems to look upon suffering and gunshot wounds as the highest form of comedy. They even craft one scene that attempts to outdo the "I Shot Marvin in the Face" scene from Pulp Fiction. Death and misery have become a joke to the Coens because the people in their films are no longer worth their emotional attachment; they used to love these people, now they just love to laugh at the futility of their petty existence. The Coens have replaced the custard pie in the face with a gunshot wound as the biggest gag there is, and in doing so, they have become the kind of nihilist they mocked in The Big Lebowski.
By the end of the film, nothing is of any importance. Not the characters, not the plot, not the comedy, and certainly not the resolution. The Coens have completely upended the Hollywood storytelling formula here, only they have replaced it with a smug void. It's hard to tell whether or not they do this out of outrage for the ineptitude of the intelligence community or out of contempt for the human race. Sadly, the film makes a much better case for the latter, with characters so vain, cruel, deceitful, conceited, or just plain stupid that there is no room for a sunny outlook or a constructive statement. Like its title suggests, Burn After Reading is destructive and disdainful, and when it's over, there is little left to take home but smoke and ash.