I’ve never seen Meet Joe Black, so forgive me for believing that it was a comedy: like a Not Another Teen Movie-esque riff on romantic dramas. My first, and only, exposure to the film was from a clip that went viral earlier this year. In it, Brad Pitt and Claire Forlani walk away from each other, glancing back over and over again to wring every last drop of longing out of this dry moment. Then Pitt stops in the middle of the road—perhaps to ponder over how ludicrous this whole thing is—and out of nowhere he gets hit by a car, flying through the air like a rag doll, only to get hit by another car.
It took me until a quick Google to discover that Meet Joe Black is not a comedy, but in fact, a fantasy romance in which Pitt plays [checks notes] ... Death? But in that period of ignorance, that one-minute meme confirmed my suspicions that Brad Pitt has deprived the world of his comedic talents.
Brad Pitt is the definitive movie star. He possesses a commanding presence, a preternatural magnetism that prevents you from looking away. It’s this quality that lends itself to some of his career-defining roles: enigmatic figures who are the source of endless, almost obsessive, fascination. Characters like Tyler Durden and Jesse James, whose myths are ultimately dismantled upon discovering that legacies are artificial.
But Brad Pitt’s best role goes one step further. It’s a character that dismantles Pitt’s star power by destroying it. A radical departure from his level-headed leads of the past that stretches the distance between character and actor to an immeasurable length. Brad Pitt’s best work is his performance as Chad Feldheimer in Burn After Reading.
Burn After Reading has had a strange, evolving reputation. Released in 2008, the Coen Brothers comedy was considered to be a disappointing follow-up to their Best Picture winner, No Country For Old Men, and was quickly dismissed as a low-tier entry in the duo’s oeuvre. But Burn After Reading was ahead of its time, and has been since recognized as such. We’ve previously made the case for Burn After Reading as a perfect film for the Trump era—idiots willing to sell secret intelligence to Russia for selfish reasons … need I say more?
Prescience aside, the film boasts an ensemble cast including Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and George Clooney constantly one-upping each other with idiocy. Burn After Reading is a convoluted web of threads that lead nowhere, but it generally follows Linda Litzke (McDormand), an employee at a gym who sees a lucrative opportunity when her co-worker Chad (Pitt) finds a disc containing the manuscript of a memoir written by CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, shouting a lot). Mistaking the contents for classified intel, the pair attempt to extort money from Cox to fund Linda’s plastic surgeries.
Everyone is also sleeping with each other and some people get killed, but that’s not important.
There is something strangely transfixing when Brad Pitt is at his most reserved. His two roles this year in Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood and Ad Astra are ample proof of such alluring stoicism—in the latter, his Roy McBride is so calm and collected that his heart rate never goes above 80 BPM. But the equally admirable flip-side is present in the rare chances he’s given to play it loose and go bonkers.
Brad Pitt has, kind of, done comedies before, but these parts involve him playing the straight man (Mr. and Mrs Smith), or they capitalize on his looks (that Thanksgiving episode of Friends). There’s a reason why Pitt steals Inglourious Basterds just by saying “BON-JUR-NO”: Brad Pitt can do comedy! But it’s not often that a film allows him to be truly funny. Where Burn After Reading differs is that Chad is painfully uncool.
If you haven’t seen Burn After Reading, you’ve probably seen GIFs of it while spending way too much time searching for just the right reaction photo. That’s the thing about Pitt’s performance: it’s extremely physical. There’s never a moment when he’s still. Chad is a restless puppy full of energy, and Pitt injects little bodily quirks into every moment, milking every scene for laughs. Dressed in skin-tight lycra of ill-fitting suits, he punctuates plot beats by breaking out into dance; he sips a drink inexplicably out of the corner of his mouth; he gives a coy, pearly-white smile before he gets his brains blown out by George Clooney.
Chad acts like someone who believes they are in a movie. His lines feel extremely rehearsed, as if he’s grasping for every opportune moment for an Oscar clip. He’s so confident in himself that he is completely unaware of how absurd he is. Yet, he’s still a complete enigma—could someone really be that stupid? “Awww, that’s cooool,” Chad says to Linda while she shows him her online dating profile, and it sounds so ridiculous that it’s not entirely clear whether he’s feigning interest, or that’s just how he is.
Plenty of comedians have made the transition from their native genre to drama to great acclaim. The opposite is more rare, but the effect is the same—you can turn to comedy to uncover an actor’s best work. Think Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel or Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. Brad Pitt disappears into the role of Chad unlike any other performance preceding it. Make no mistake, Pitt is consistently exceptional in every film he’s appeared in. But Burn After Reading embodies the high risk, high reward moves he’s been making his entire career. Brad Pitt doesn’t have to make radical career shifts to prove he can do comedy. He’s had it in him this whole time.
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Originally Appeared on GQ