Osbourne Cox, deliciously played by John Malkovich, is a C.I.A. analyst who is getting the boot by his superiors. They feel he has a drinking problem, but considering he waits till exactly 5:00 p.m. to pour his first drink, Osbourne disagrees. He's stuck in a loveless marriage to a cold shrew of a woman named Katie (the peculiar yet always engaging Tilda Swinton), who is in the midst of an affair with the goofy Harry Pfarrer (a bumbling, terrific George Clooney), who happens to be a Federal Marshall, not to mention a complete sex addict. Cox decides, in one of many fits of rage displayed in the film, that he's going to write a memoir about his life working as a government spook. When the disc containing his book falls out of his assistant's gym bag at her gym and into the hands of two moronic gym employees, things start to get very hectic. Just how lame-brained are these gym rats? Linda Litzke, the incomparable Frances McDormand, is so self-conscious that she feels that overhauling her body with plastic surgery is the only way she can continue to lead a satisfying existence. Never mind that her adoring boss Ted, the great Richard Jenkins, loves her exactly the way she is. Linda's best buddy, the extremely dim-witted yet good-hearted Chad (a never-been-funnier Brad Pitt), comes up with a plan. They will blackmail Osbourne into giving them money in exchange for giving him back his memoirs. They've seen enough movies, Chad reckons, for their plan to succeed. To say that Linda and Chad get in over their heads would be an understatement. That's about all of a plot summary that I'd like to offer up. The film zigzags from one character to the next, giving everyone equal time, and making sure to bring all the parties together to complete this absurdist amalgam of spy movie and quirky character study. The plot moves in unpredictable ways and offers more than one surprise, and is injected with sudden, graphic bursts of violence (customary in almost all of the Coen's work). There is a bleak subtext of how inept our government's information gathering methods are that runs through the entire film, which is book ended brilliantly by scenes with two C.I.A. higher-ups, played by Coen regular J.K. Simmons and a stony faced David Rasche.
BURN AFTER READING is, above all else, extremely funny. But its humor isn't of the knee-slapping, laugh-till-you-cry variety. This is a smirking, smart-assed film, one that is in love with itself, while simultaneously hating almost everyone depicted in the narrative. The Coens have crafted characters, that are, at least on paper, almost all totally unlikable in one form or another. Granted, each of them has their sympathetic moments, but they're all so stupid or self-absorbed that when something terrible happens to them, the audience isn't exactly sure how to react. Clooney, playing another oaf for the Coens (this film marks the third film in their supposed "idiot trilogy," which started with O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY), gives one of the best performances of his career. Harry is a lout and a cheat, but there is something strangely endearing about him. Just wait until you see what he's working on in his basement. Pitt, who has never done comedy like this, is absolutely hysterical every time he appears on screen. Sporting an absurd haircut and chomping gum through many scenes like a grazing cow, he provides the character of Chad with just enough innocent naiveté that plays against his inherent stupidity. Malkovich, playing a vulgar, seething, intensely modulated character, amps up the level of menace every time he's on screen. The sweetness that McDormand brought to her character in FARGO is glimpsed at from time to time in BURN AFTER READING. However, Linda is a classic example of the clueless character that will never be able to get her life fully on track. The film, as is customary of the Coens, looks fantastic; the incredible cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezeki (CHILDREN OF MEN, THE NEW WORLD) shoots in steely grays and muted colors which reflect the morally ambiguous characters. This is the first time in nine films that the Coens haven't teamed up with their normal director of photography, the legendary Roger Deakins. Lubezeki's work fits right in line with the off-kilter world that the Coens have been honing and crafting with Deakins over the last 15 years. The Coens are master subverters; there is always more than one theme being explored in all of their films, and BURN AFTER READING is no exception. When I first left the theater after watching it, I knew that I had been entertained. I knew that I really enjoyed it. But I wasn't sure how much I liked it overall, and it was hard for me to place it within their oeuvre. It didn't leave me feeling blown-away like I felt when the lights came up after NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN or FARGO. Yet, at the same time, I was floored by the dark, angry, mean-spirited undercurrent of the film in general. And after thinking about it over the last few weeks, it’s gotten stronger and I cannot wait for a second viewing. BURN AFTER READING is the kind of film that makes you laugh, but then asks the viewer why you're laughing at the antics of insipid, morally bankrupt people. It's a tightly plotted, fast moving, darker-than-dark comedy that ranks as one of the year's best films.