The Coen Brothers return triumphant with Burn After Reading, a film that’s as different from their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007) as possible. Where No Country was serious (with Coen-esque bouts of bitter humor), Burn After Reading at least appears to be a very frivolous affair (with Coen-esque bouts of grisliness). But as Brad Pitt’s character says during the course of the film, “appearances can be deceptive.” At bottom, I think Burn is anything but frivolous. It’s just so much unwholesome fun that it seems that way.
On the surface, Burn After Reading consists of several highly rated Hollywood stars (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt) along with a couple notable character actors (J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins) poking fun at themselves, at their screen personas and, in some cases, at their public personas. Their characters are blessed one way and another with character traits that are, shall we say, strictly Coen—like Clooney’s home-handyman obsession with the kind of wood other people’s floors are made of or his postcoital obsession with “getting a run in.”
The story purports to be a wigged-out spy yarn that takes place in the realm of upper-middle level CIA, lower-middle level vestiges of the KGB and upper-middle class Washington, D.C., society—with some working-class stiffs thrown in to complicate matters. Malkovich plays CIA operative Osborne Cox, a bitter wannabe maverick with a drinking problem he denies exists (“You’re a Mormon, everybody’s a fucking alcoholic to you,” he tells an accusatory coworker). He quits the agency rather than accept a demotion. His hazy plan is to get his revenge by writing a tell-all memoir—while living off his fed-up wife, Katie (Swinton), who’s having an affair with none-too-bright, oversexed federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who, in turn, is living off his wife, Sandy (TV actress Elizabeth Marvel), an author of popular children’s books.
On the other side of the tracks is Linda Litzke (McDormand), a middle-aged worker at a gym who is obsessed with her body image—convinced that her single status can be cured by cosmetic surgery (“I’ve gone about as far as I can with this body”). Unfortunately, her insurance doesn’t cover this sort of thing, but potential help arrives when—through a typically silly turn of events—a CD containing the first chapters of Cox’s tell-all memoir and his banking information that looks like code ends up on the locker room floor at the gym. Naturally, Linda and her even more dim-witted sidekick, Chad (Pitt), reason that Cox will pay substantially for its return. From here, things get really complicated in a series of crossed paths and ever-screwier ideas that aren’t always as safe as they may seem.
All of this rampant infidelity and perfidy hasn’t escaped the notice of the CIA. Each aspect of what’s going on is duly reported to a CIA supervisor (J.K. Simmons), who becomes increasingly baffled by the complete lack of rational thought evidenced by everyone involved. Oh, he’ll step in to clean up messes various and sundry, but he has no clue why any of this is happening, nor why any of these people are doing what they are. “Report back to me when it makes sense,” he says at one point, knowing full well that it never will. It’s not clear whether he’s actually that much smarter than anyone else in the film, but he’s at least bright enough to know everyone is ultimately incompetent and irrational—yet completely convinced that the opposite is true.
That’s really the crux of the film, and the thing that makes all the Coens’ undeniable fun actually have some point. Anyone who has ever had any in-depth dealings with the corporate world will recognize the amassed incompetence on display here. All the Coens have done is place it on every level of society—from the lowest to the near highest—reaching a conclusion that absolutely no one really knows anything, that everyone is flailing about in the dark, completely deluded by their own sense of self-importance. In the end, nearly everything that happens in Burn After Reading results from Linda Litzke’s media-fed desire for a body makeover—perhaps simultaneously the most ridiculous premise, yet strangely appropriate one to our age imaginable. In the world of the Coens’ darkly funny film, we’re all going to hell and the only possible response is to sit back and be amused by the sheer absurdity of the ride. It may just be the perfect film for our time. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.