Never trust those who are “too fit”.
When CIA Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) gets demoted from his job, he decides that it’s time to start the proceedings on his memoir. Somehow, though, the disk containing all of this information falls into the hands of two gym employees, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), both of whom clearly have no idea what they’re going to do with this disk. But they both have the right idea to blackmail Cox for some money, even if they don’t know how to go about it, nor what the actual proceedings are. Meanwhile, Linda herself is in search of a better life that isn’t just working in the gym. Currently, she’s trying to fund her cosmetic surgeries, as well as someone to love in her life. Through various dating websites, she meets the charming and likable Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), and the two hit it off immediately. Strange thing is that Harry, despite being married, also happens to be shackin’ up with Osborne’s wife (Tilda Swinton), which leads the whole situation to end up in some real weird, sticky situations, sometimes with them leading to violence and all sorts of bloodshed.
At this stage in their career, the Coen brothers can practically do anything that they want and nobody is going to tell them otherwise. They have enough Oscars under their belt, have made their studios enough money, and have earned enough respect in the biz to say that they want to make about anything, and everybody will fall for it, hook, line and sinker. As is the case with most writers and directors, they’ve had some mediocre films, as well as some amazing films, but mostly, they’ve made films worth checking out and taking time out of one’s day to watch, because a Coen brother’s movie is, quite frankly, better than a lot of other stuff out there.
And Burn After Reading is the exact reason why they are so beloved.
Though, at the same time, the movie doesn’t show the Coen brothers really working with anything new, or ground-breaking; instead, they’re taking on the whole spy genre, making a farce out of it, and rather than having real, actual spies involved, the movie’s just about a bunch of regular, everyday people who are, yes, goofy and sometimes idiotic. However, they are all searching for the same thing: Money and power. To the Coens, this is perhaps the most interesting aspect about the human-condition, in which seemingly normal people, can be driven so ridiculously mad by the prospect of wealth, that they’d do almost anything to achieve it and rule their own little world.
At the same time, though, rather than being all sad and serious about it, the Coens add a lighter touch onto that whole idea, giving us characters that aren’t just colorful and likable, but also interesting. Sure, some of these characters may come off as very schticky and thin, but the Coens also show how that they’re personalities make who they are and determine every decision that they make throughout the movie. Some characters are, obviously, smarter than others, but nobody here is actually a good person, and there’s something inherently fun and entertaining in watching all of these characters get caught in a crazy web of lies, murder and deception, just for the hell of it.
It also helps that the cast is pretty great, too.
As usual, the Coens work with some of their own regulars who, by now, have mastered the art of the “Coen speak”. George Clooney is exciting, but also very weird as Harry, who always seems to have an issue with the food he eats, as well as an odd obsession with wood-panels; Frances McDormand’s Linda is a total polar opposite of what we’re used to seeing her play, giving us a naive, sometimes sad character who always tries to stay upbeat, no matter what the situation may call for; and Richard Jenkins, as Linda’s boss who can’t seem to stop falling over her, makes you want to give him a hug just about every scene he’s involved with.
But the newcomers to the Coen’s also handle their material well and show why they deserve to be in their movies a whole lot more. John Malkovich does a lot of cursing and yelling as Osborne, and it’s so much fun to watch and listen that I didn’t care if his character didn’t get as developed as I would have liked; Tilda Swinton’s character is a bit bitchy and mean, but also seems like she’s got more going onto her that would have been interesting to see developed more, but for what it is, this is all we get and it’s fine; and Brad Pitt, well, let’s just say he sort of steals the show. Not only does Brad Pitt seems like he’s so eager and excited to be apart of a Coen brother’s movie, but he also seems like he really wants to see what’s more to this character that he’s playing – something that isn’t quite seen in the rest of the movie.
Pitt’s Chad, for the most part, doesn’t really care about gaining any sort of money or respect, he’s just around for the fun of it all. That’s clear from the very beginning, once we realize that there’s a certain zaniness and energy to him that’s hard to ignore. This is mostly all thanks to Pitt who, using his grace and charm, shows that while a meat-head like Chad can be lovable, he can also be one you sort of feel bad for, once the situation he’s involved with gets to be a bit too crazy and over-the-top for his own good. There’s something about Chad that I wanted to see more of, but really, what I got was fine enough.
And that’s basically all that there is to say about Burn After Reading: It’s fine, and although you wish you saw more, that’s all you really need.
But hey, don’t just listen to me, let J.K. Simmons tell you all about it.
Consensus: Though it’s not exactly breaking down any barriers, Burn After Reading still finds the Coen brothers in a fun, hilariously wicked spirit that maintains their sense of odd energy the whole way through.
8 / 10