Burn After Reading
We all know how a spoof is made. You take a collection of familiar genre tropes and exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate. Then exaggerate some more. You inflate the familiar until it turns into farce. You use characters who are caricatures of familiar stereotypes, you develop a wildly improbable storyline, you put in dialog that is totally ridiculous and then have your actors deliver it with a straight face, you add all the usual sound and light effects only you turn them up a notch or two to make them more obtrusive, you pick a handful of classic scenes and parody the heck out of them. Most of all, you get rid of any and all traces of real emotion, never allowing your main characters to experience anything as laughter-killing as pain, loss or grief. And you throw in a feel-good, happy ending, where the good guys triumph and the audience is never allowed to seriously contemplate the consequences for the bad guys. And if you do this all right you get a movie that will have the audience doubled over in their seats, clutching their sides with laughter.
The trouble is, the Coen Brothers know how spoofs work too. These are the guys, after all, who made The Hudsucker Proxy. And it would seem they're bored of it. Which may be why, true to their contrary nature, they've now decided to turn all the rules of spoof-making on their head.
Because Burn After Reading isn't so much a spoof as it is an anti-spoof. The logic of the film is simple - what if, instead of making everything over-the-top, we spoofed the genre by making everything under-the-bottom? What if we deflated the storyline, filled the movie with characters who, though a little quirky, were recognizably ordinary, even banal, and ordinarily unhappy? What if instead of exaggerating the usual sound and visual effects we played them absolutely straight, perhaps even a little understated, but used them for scenes that were entirely mundane? And what if, instead of the usual good vs. bad fairy tale, we had a story about petty, not-nice people who all came to a more or less sticky end? Wouldn't that be funny?
Whether or not you find Burn After Reading funny is, I suspect, a matter of personal taste - I chuckled quite a bit through the film, but I'm a card carrying member of Misanthropy Inc., so that's not surprising. What the film undeniably is, though, is ingenious - a film that pushes the boundaries of what comedy is and what it means to spoof a genre, while managing to get in a bunch of nice little jabs at contemporary society. Compared to much of the Coen Brothers earlier work this is a fairly bland film, but the blandness feels deliberate, even ironic, as though the filmmakers were parodying their own parody. Burn After Reading isn't one of the Coens' best films  (I would place it somewhere between The Man Who Wasn't There and Blood Simple), but like those films it is the product of a bizarre and relentlessly off-beat imagination that takes almost sadistic delight in subverting the familiar, and has therefore the magical quality of being both a parody and a true original.
 There are several problems with it - a slightly too contrived plot, some hammy acting, the Brad Pitt character is all wrong, and the ending feels too rushed.