Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Elizabeth Marvel
Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.
“Burn After Reading” is a true-to-form Coen Brothers movie. It’s packed with inspired lunacy, bizarre characters, brief but potent bursts of violence, and a plot so convoluted even the characters aren’t sure what’s going on.
The film is ostensibly a spy movie comedy sort of thing, but it takes quite a while to get rolling and is ultimately focused on the large central group of characters. There are two Washington, D.C. couples: Harry and Sandy Pfarrer (George Clooney and Elizabeth Marvel) and Osbourne and Katie Cox (John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton). Harry is with the Treasury Department, and a serious womanizer. He’s cheating on his wife with Katie. Meanwhile, he cruises internet dating sites to pick up women for one-night stands. Osbourne has a bit of a drinking problem and a temper, and winds up quitting his job as a CIA analyst in a huff when he’s reassigned with a lower clearance. Katie is considering divorcing Osbourne, and this is the last straw. She copies a bunch of his files — mostly financial stuff, but also a memoir he’s working on — onto a CD and goes to her lawyer.
Unfortunately, the CD winds up in the hands of a couple of employees at the aptly-named Hardbodies gym. Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is fit but not getting any younger, and she’s determined to get a series of plastic surgeries to keep up appearances. Unfortunately, the insurance she has through Hardbodies won’t cover it. When the CD turns up and her friend and coworker Chad (Brad Pitt) points out that it’s obviously super-secret CIA information, the two of them decide to see if they can get a reward from the CD’s owner. A computer geek friend finds the originating system information and they call Osbourne — who thinks they’re blackmailing him, and becomes enraged. Even so, Linda is set on getting the money, and Chad is too stupid to do anything but go along in the face of her relentless determination.
Things get even more complicated from here, with Harry and Linda meeting through the dating site and hitting it off, Linda and Chad trying to sell the data to the Russians, and other assorted bits of mayhem. The CIA finds out about the disc and the department head on whose desk the information ends up (J.K. Simmons, “Juno”) on is thoroughly confused, instructing his underlings to keep following everyone and “come back when it makes sense.”
The actors are all perfectly cast, particularly Pitt. He plays Chad with a relentless optimism and fuzzy-headedness that is infectiously hilarious. McDormand captures the desperation of a woman in an industry focused on appearance who is starting to lose her youth and cannot see that she’s still beautiful. Malkovich is as delightful as ever, and Clooney has turned his charm up so far that Harry is both slimy and pathetic. Swinton’s Katie is cold and angry, and one can’t help wondering what exactly she sees in Harry. The secondary characters are all deftly drawn in their limited screentime, from Linda’s smitten but rather helpless manager Ted (Richard Jenkins, “Six Feet Under”) to Sandy, who turns out to be more complicated than we at first suspected.
“Burn After Reading” does contain some startling violence — think of the woodchipper in “Fargo,” or the toe in “The Big Lebowski” — but it’s neither overdone nor gratuitous. Ultimately, if you’re a Coen Brothers fan, this movie will be right up your alley. If you’re not fond of their zany humor or the dark streak that filters into even their lightest films, you should probably stay away.