No, it isn’t as good as the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, but Burn after Reading is a perfect follow-up to the previous year’s Oscar winner nonetheless. No Country for Old Men, a drama about a rancher who finds a stolen case full of cash, is their greatest film. Burn after Reading, about a giddy physical trainer (Brad Pitt) who finds a CD containing the memoir of an ex-CIA analyst played by John Malkovich, is their best pure comedy yet.
That is an over-simplification. Burn after Reading is a meticulously scripted pretzel of a film full of incident and surprises. It’s about many things. As George Clooney puts it, “It’s about shockingly dumb people in Washington, but it’s not a political film at all. It’s about people doing dumb things.”
Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film with his brother Joel, described it as about, “spy stuff and intrigue. That we haven’t done before. It’s a Tony Scott, Bourne Identity kind of picture without the explosions.”
In the opening shots, Burn after Reading seems like a parody not of James Bond movies but of serious spy capers like the Jason Bourne series. The soundtrack is deliberately over intense for the farce that surrounds it.
To attempt describing the plot of Burn after Reading would be an exercise in futility. It’s enough to know that what makes it funny is that every character thinks they are ahead of the game before discovering that they too have been played. The Coens do justice to their excellent cast. It’s Malkovich’s best role in nearly a decade, Clooney’s funniest turn to date, and yet another nugget in Brad Pitt’s belt.
Take Brad Pitt as the hyper gym coach Chad. Those who say that this is an atypical role for Pitt fail to realizes that there no such thing as a typical Brad Pitt performance. One of his most admirable qualities as an actor is his consistent creativity. So far he’s played a detective chasing a serial killer, a ravaging plague survivor, Death, the imaginary leader of an underground fight club, and an Appalachian Nazi-hunter. So why is his Chad, best friend to his lovesick colleague Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), considered atypical?
Pitt doesn’t play him as a one-joke stereotype. Chad is equal parts caring friend, shallow fitness buff, and enthusiastic. But he’s way over his head and too naïve for a guy who suddenly finds himself in international scandal.
Chad’s only experience with politics comes from the movies. He conducts his first contact with Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) as if he were living a celluloid political thriller and the two (the real CIA analyst and the phony) aren’t even on the same page. The first thing we notice when they finally meet in person is how uncomfortable Chad feels in a suit, almost as much as Pitt’s Aldo Raine would in Inglourious Basterds.
Linda is lonely and none of her dates amount to much. To her, the answer to her problems is cosmetic surgery, but the gym’s HMO plan won’t cover it. Besides, her pitiful manager (Richard Jenkins), who not-so-secretly lusts for her, thinks she looks beautiful just the way she is. When Chad discovers the CD containing private memories of the ex-CIA agent in the locker room, he and Linda see an opportunity to make a fortune.
It’s the movie’s mistake to assume we like Linda. She’s shallow, not above extortion, and more than a little dumb. That’s not really the issue, however. This is a Coen movie after all. Instead, the problem with Linda is that she’s simply a stock insecure woman and McDormand whines so much through the role that she renders the character grating.
The world of government officials provides delightful stereotypes by contrast. Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) was recently fired from the agency due to a drinking problem. Life at home isn’t much better. His conniving wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with Harry, a Treasury guy played by George Clooney, who is also married. Clooney’s performance as Harry is one of his funniest and most daring. Harry is a neurotic hypochondriac that is cheating not only on his wife, but also on his mistress Katie with women he meets off a dating site. In an unusual way it breaks the idyllic image of George Clooney.
Everyone backstabs someone else and the fun of this film comes both from watching these imbeciles collide and from their realization that they aren’t as smart as they thought they were. Chad and Linda find out, for instance, that Cox isn’t as eager to pay their demand for the CD as they expected. The best moment in Burn after Reading is the hilarious three way call between Chad, Linda, and the puzzled Cox. Malkovich is in top form as the short-fused Cox and here he peaks upon each fall-out with Pitt. Chad and Linda are again disappointed when they try to sell the CD to the Russian embassy. The information contained on the disc was not as valuable as they imagined.
Eventually, almost everyone in Burn after Reading gets some sort of comeuppance. Chad’s search for further evidence comes to a grim end. When the calculating Katie becomes too overbearing, the philandering Harry realizes how much he loves his wife…only to discover that she isn’t quite faithful herself. Of all the people here, Harry and Katie are the two most deserving of a Coen bruising. Ironically, they are the ones that get off the easiest. Nothing happens to Katie and Harry simply loses his sanity when his paranoia overcomes him. By contrast, Osbourne Cox and Ted (Richard Jenkins), the gym manager, who have more or less played fair, meet at the worst possible moment in their lives and their encounter ends tragically for both of them. And as for Linda? Well, she is disappointed by a man one more time in the end.
It’s amazing how well the Coens can unravel such a tangled plot in a brisk hour and a half. There isn’t a moment of boredom in Burn after Reading and everyone is a joy to watch throughout. Brad Pitt may deliver the most memorable performance but the funniest turn is by George Clooney. Like Cary Grant, Clooney isn’t afraid to make himself a clown when a movie is worth his while. Joining this amazing ensemble are David Rasche and J.K. Simmons as two befuddled CIA agents trying to make sense of the whole mess. Their function in the film is particularly interesting. They are trying to follow along with the audience, but the audience has an advantage over them. We know what happened and can laugh at their confusion. They are just another wonderful detail in this gem from the creative minds of the Coen Brothers.