When alcoholic CIA analyst Osborne Cox [John Malkovich] refuses to accept a demotion because of his drinking problem and quits, he sets in motion a series of events that enmesh a number of not terribly bright characters in what could safely be called an anti-thriller thriller. When the notes on his memoir are accidentally left behind in a gym, they fall into the hands of gym employees Chad [Brad Pitt] and Linda [Frances McDormand] whose attempt to return them is mistaken for an attempted at blackmail.
Even though the files are worthless, Chad and Linda somehow get the Russians to show some interest – thoroughly confusing Ozzie’s former colleagues [David Rasche and his boss, J.K. Simmons]. At the same time, a federal marshal named Harry [George Clooney] is having affairs behind his children’s books author wife [Elizabeth Marvel] with Osborne’s wife [Tilda Swinton].
As the mistakes pile up, the CIA boss becomes so exasperated that he orders his subordinate to “Come back when this makes sense!” Alas, for them, it never will. In fact, it probably won’t for any of the characters – though one of them comes out of the whole thing less badly than the others.
All the elements of a Coen Brothers film are present in Burn After Reading. Odd angles [especially low-angles]? Check! Character arcs that bend and twist back on themselves? Check! Dialogue that stays with you after you’ve left the theater? Check! Unexpected moments of violence? Check! Expected moments of violence? Nope! If you’ve ever watched early Coen Brothers movies like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, much of Burn After Reading will resonate with you. It’s that kind of film. If not, you might wonder if there’s anything actually going on in it.
Although none of the characters is terribly smart, some [especially Pitt’s Chad] project a kind of endearingly dim earnestness, which allows us to actually become involved in the movie. And some characters – like J.K. Simmons’ CIA boss – are there mostly to serve up unexpectedly humorous reactions. There’s even enough paranoia to give the humor even more of an edge – as Hitchcock once said, when a character notes, in the first act, that he’s never had to discharge his weapon, he had better do so in the third. The Coen Brothers use that device deftly enough that we don’t believe it when it happens because it’s simultaneously tragic and hilarious. Even the Fugs’ song over the closing credits works to the film’s advantage. After No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading comes across as the Coen Brothers’ version of a romp. For the most part, it works.
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