This review's been gestating in my brain for the better part of three weeks. When trying to discuss a film by the Coen brothers, it's always hard to figure out where to begin. There are so many tangential threads going on at any given time, even in their lesser films (see: The Ladykillers). One of the key things to remember when watching a Coen brothers movie is that these guys might as well be film scholars in their own right, because they know genre, story structure, and character arcs inside and out. So when they make a movie like Burn After Reading, it's important to understand that every fault, every little detail that might seem odd or out of place is entirely done on purpose.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a small army of characters motivated by personal gain. Central to this movie's tornado if strange circumstances is Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a former CIA agent who vindictively decides to write a tell-all memoir about his years 'observing the Balkans'. His wife (Tilda Swinton) thinks he's an idiot, and is cheating on him with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury agent with a bit of a personality disorder. At the same time, Harry is cheating on her with Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a self-absorbed gym trainer who, along with dim-bulb coworker Chad (Brad Pitt), tries to blackmail Cox with a CD of his personal files.
If it sounds like a dumb plot, it is. There are three or four different stories going on here simultaneously, but the fun of Burn After Reading is watching the way in which each of these stories ends up colliding into another one. It takes the movie a good 15 minutes or so to really pick up steam, but once things get moving, it's a roller-coaster ride to a truly odd finale. In fact, if you study this film next to other Coen films, like Fargo or No Country for Old Men, the ending is about the same. Meaning: each of these films wrap up their stories in such a way that one has to ask: does anyone truly come out ahead?
As is the case in most every Coen film, the cast is largely well chosen. The only one who feels at all out of place is Tilda Swinton, though she apparently was the only major player whose character wasn't written specifically for her. Clooney plays the fool here, just like he does in Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother Where Art Thou?, though he does go a little further over the top. Frances McDormand shines, just like she does in Fargo. The real treats here are John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. Malkovich plays Cox with the kind of misplaced anger that really makes him a fun villain (as villainous as he can possibly be here), and Pitt makes Chad such an idiot, that you really end up missing him once he exits the film.
Overall, Burn After Reading is a truly odd take on the whole spy thriller genre that's been taking the country by storm. It works as a parody of our Me-First mentality the same way No Country for Old Men examined the ideas of evil, justice, etc. The story itself does feel a tad unfinished, as evidenced by the final monologue from a CIA official played by J.K. Simmons. It's a fun 90 minutes with Joel and Ethan, and your enjoyment of the film depends entirely upon how much you enjoy the way these two tell stories. Personally, movies like Burn After Reading are right up my alley. It won't sweep up any awards, but it's definitely a fun movie I look forward to seeing again on DVD.
3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.