Burn After Reading

starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt
written & directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

The plot of Burn After Reading rather defies description, or at least summarization, but here goes: CIA analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is going through a rough time. He has just been fired from his job due to alcoholism, his wife Katie (Swinton) is having an affair with a Treasury agent named Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), and Linda Litzke and Chad Feldheimer (McDormand and Pitt), two hapless gym employees, have just stumbled on a disc containing the rough draft of his memoirs. And that’s just the first five minutes or so. Please don’t ask me to go on.

The Coen Brothers have followed the multi-Oscar-winning literary adaptation No Country for Old Men with one of their lightweight, trademark comedies. It would not be entirely unfair to compare Burn After Reading with the Coen’s radically uneven The Ladykillers (which I actually rather enjoyed) or their execrable Intolerable Cruelty in style and tone. The similarity is hardly surprising, though this is better than either of those.

There seems to be a lot going on during the first half of the film. Subplots just keep multiplying and new questions are raised. It is obvious that something is going on (or is it?), but we are as in the dark as everyone else. Long before the end, though, things begin to make a strange sort of sense as we realize that what seemed to be a large, orchestrated sequence of events is really just the result of a surprisingly limited circle of coincidence. It is as though plot lines are being cut, one by one, by Occam’s Razor and tied together into one massive knot of pure absurdity.

The characters in the movie aren’t terribly likable, but they are fun to watch. Clooney and McDormand (and, briefly, Richard Jenkins as Ted, the gym manager) are the only ones accorded any real depth. Both are in the midst of a sort of mid-life crisis and are looking for someone to fill a void. Even though Harry is already married to a successful children’s author and having an affair with a pediatrician, he still hooks up with random women through an Internet dating service. Linda, meanwhile, is also looking for love on the Internet. She also desperately wants to get some extensive (and expensive) cosmetic surgery, but her insurance won’t cover elective procedures. She’ll need an alternative source of funding in order to achieve her goal.

Special attention must go to Brad Pitt, though, whose airhead jock is the funniest character in Burn After Reading. Chad is a simpleton and a buffoon, long on enthusiasm but not very good at thinking on his feet (or at all). He is the sort of person who doesn’t even know just enough to get himself into trouble. That’s where Linda comes in. She knows more than enough to land them both (but especially Chad) neck-deep in hot water.

It took me a long time to find a character to anchor my sympathies with, but I finally realized that it has to be the nameless CIA superior, played wonderfully by J.K. Simmons. He, like the audience, is removed from everything that is going on in the film (although he understands even less than we do). He sits behind his desk and gets reports through an intermediary from agents in the field and gapes and wonders just exactly what is going on with these crazy people. And, at the end of it all, he summarizes the situation perfectly (and I paraphrase): “What did we learn? Well, we learned not to do this again. I just wish I knew what it was that we did.”

If Burn After Reading is about anything (a debatable proposition), it is about the fact that events that seem connected don’t always have a discernable meaning or a human intelligence pulling the strings. Sometimes things just happen, and, though they would never admit it, even the seemingly omniscient intelligence community can’t connect the dots.

~ by Jared on September 12, 2008.

One Response to “Burn After Reading”

  1. Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he’s not taking himself too seriously… in any case, it’s about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements


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