Joel and Ethan Coen make comedies with a body count, and “Burn After Reading” is no exception. It starts off with the demotion of Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an unpleasant f-word spewing and irascible CIA agent. Instead of suffering the demotion, he quits his job, telling Katie, his cold British wife (Tilda Swinton), that he’ll work out of the house as a consultant and spend his free time crafting his memoirs. Since she’s already having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a gold-chain wearing lothario in the Treasury Department, she decides to get a divorce and hook up with Harry. (Harry, however, is already married to a famous children’s author who herself is stepping out on him.) Katie’s lawyer tells her that before she does anything further, she needs to get him copies of their financial statements. She downloads Osborne’s files onto a CD-Rom, and gives it to his secretary. She, for some reason, takes a bag filled with her work documents to her gym, Hard Bodies, where she loses the CD. The janitor at the gym finds the CD in the women’s locker room and turns it over to Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), the gym’s manager, who shows it to personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who then shows it to another employee, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Chad immediately assumes that the documents are “secret spy shit,” and he turns to a computer friend for help. This guy, who we never see, helps Chad track down the CD’s owner – Osborne Cox. Chad then decides that he’ll just call up Osborne, tell him he has his disc, and because he’s being a “good Samaritan,” he’ll get a reward. But this is a Coen brothers’ film, and a plan, especially one hatched by those with below than average intelligence, never goes very well. Soon Osborne is shouting vehemently into the phone, and a now very incensed Linda steps in. Time to go to disastrous Plan B.
Most characters in a Coen brothers’ film are driven by lust or greed, and that’s also the case in “Burn After Reading.” Linda is a middle-aged “spinster” who is desperate to reinvent herself through four plastic surgery procedures, but her HMO has denied payment. She is the one who encourages the sweet iPod-listening Chad to join her in a blackmail plot that can only end in tragedy.
“Burn After Reading” is being billed as a comedy but I didn’t find myself laughing very much. Pitt is exceptional here, and seems to be channeling the energy and goofiness that we saw early in his career. For some reason, “Twelve Monkeys” springs to mind. He was the only reason I remained interested in the film, and then … well, I’m not going to spoil anything but his role wasn’t big enough for my tastes. Clooney shows a bit of that comic timing he demonstrated in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” His character, too, is goofy. After sex he always wants to go for a run, and when he’s eating food he’s afraid of anaphylactic shock – he’s allergic to lactose and shellfish and yet he seems to eat both without repercussions. Although Pitt and Clooney are standouts, I wouldn’t say that the rest of the cast are duds. A Coen brothers’ film can always be counted on for its cast – both the known and unknown players. You would have to dig really deep to find a film in which Malkovich isn’t being an A-class jerk wad so he’s perfect here as Osborne Cox. I’ve never really liked Swinton, but she’s cast to a T. She’s a variation on the bitch she played in “Michael Clayton.” The same goes for the great casting of Jenkins, who often plays a regular sad-sack schlub; and J.K. Simmons, who plays a fast-talking, often incredulous, CIA Superior. The cast is superb!
What disappointed me most about “Burn After Reading” is that there weren’t enough laughs or surprises. Over the years, the Coens have given us several variations on this script, most notably “Blood Simple,” which was darker, and “Fargo,” which was funnier. Also the characters weren’t fleshed out enough for me to care about any of them. The plot seemed to be more important than were the characters.
I know people who loved “Burn After Reading” and people who hated it. Those who loved it are fans of the more popular Coen comedies – “Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski,” etc. In fact, if you look over the list of their films, most of them are absurdist, sometimes screwball, comedies. I enjoy those, but I much prefer their rarely occurring super dark, existential masterpieces, such as “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “No Country for Old Men.” After being disappointed with “Burn,” I hope they hit us really hard with their next film.
“Burn After Reading” topped the box office, earning $19.4 million, amazingly just $1.4 million than Tyler Perry’s 1,000th film “The Family That Preys.” I don’t know if that’s significant or not. I just wanted to express my own incredulity.
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (director) / Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (screenplay)
CAST: George Clooney … Harry Pfarrer
Frances McDormand … Linda Litzke
Brad Pitt … Chad Feldheimer
John Malkovich … Osborne Cox
Tilda Swinton … Katie Cox
Richard Jenkins … Ted Treffon
David Rasche … CIA Officer
J.K. Simmons … CIA Superior