The Coen Brothers love stupid people. How else to explain their recurring use of such folk in their films? Sometimes the aim of employing stupid characters is to sympathize with them as in the case of Hi from Raising Arizona, sometimes the aim is to endear a character to the audience like Norville in The Hudsucker Proxy, sometimes the aim is to countermand a character’s authority as with Professor Dorr in The Ladykillers, and yes, sometimes the aim is just to make us laugh.
In Burn After Reading particularly, stupidity is on fill display, with every use described above embodied by one character or another, from the sympathetic Linda (Frances McDormand) to the lovable Chad (Brad Pitt), the ineffective Osbourne (John Malkovich) to the rest of the cast who combine their stupidities to make what would otherwise be a very bleak and depressing film about the struggles of adult relationships and social, intellectual, and emotional isolation in contemporary society into one of the Coen’s most successful comedies.
If I’m honest, the first time I tried to watch Burn After Reading I didn’t make it all the way through. That’s because the film’s narrative is a secondary concern to its characterization, and as such there isn’t much of a plot to speak of outside the general situation. Burn After Reading, like A Serious Man or The Man Who Wasn’t There, is driven by its characters, whatever story that develops does so because of the people they are, not the events they encounter. In the instance of Burn After Reading the characters conjure a comedic atmosphere over a dramatic one, but only by the grace of their lack of intelligence; if these were smarter people, it would be a different film altogether.
In a new video essay entitled “Beyond Stupid,” editor Yoahnn Casals moves through each of the main characters of Burn After Reading to explain just how and what kind of stupid they are, and how the Coens use this stupidity to their hilarious advantage, as well as our collective delight.