Burn After Reading is a comedic comeback of sorts for the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who took slight missteps with their last attempts at laughter, Intolerable Cruelty and their remake of The Ladykillers. (While I personally liked Intolerable Cruelty and loved The Ladykillers, they were not major critical or box office successes). Cruelty had a long line of writers and a vibe that was far too conventional for these guys. With Burn, they go back to their particular brand of gonzo comedy. They have complete control, an impeccable crew, and some of the best actors in the business having what appears to be the time of their lives. The result is a blast on par with their Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski.
A jaded, self-important CIA agent named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) gets threatened with demotion and eventually quits in the film’s opening moments. We don’t truly learn why, although a drinking problem is mentioned. Osborne tells his prissy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) that he plans to write his memoirs, and she’s not impressed. When a disc containing his memoirs mysteriously shows up on the floor at Hardbodies, a local gym, Osborne’s supposedly top-secret information winds up in the hands of bumbling idiots.
The idiots are Chad (Brad Pitt), an imbecilic personal trainer, and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), Chad’s plastic-surgery-obsessed coworker. They conspire to blackmail Cox, who is none too pleased. Cox’s wife is having an affair with U.S. Marshall Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who is also internet dating many women, eventually including Linda among his cyber-conquests. All of these character’s lives begin to intersect, spiral out of control, and eventually involve the CIA and even the Russians.
It’s all remarkably silly, yet the Coens make it so grandiose. There are moments in this film that are as funny as anything they’ve ever put to screen. When Chad and Linda make their first phone call to Osborne Cox, Pitt and Malkovich mint comic gold. Harry’s basement hobby revelation is stellar funny, as is a shooting death moment that is a mammoth shocker.
How is it that composer Carter Burwell has never even been nominated for an Oscar? He’s composed the music for every Coen brothers movie, including this one, and it’s high time the Academy took notice of this guy. His work here magnifies everything in the movie, and his contribution is massive. Will somebody throw an Oscar at this guy, already? Give him a make-up Oscar for his Fargo score.
Pitt, who was so funny in his True Romance cameo as Floyd the stoner, steals his scenes as Chad. Whether he’s snapping something in a poor customer’s ass during a stretching routine, or getting punched in the face during a blackmail session, Pitt (who, from some angles, is beginning to look like a young Benicio Del Toro) is nothing but masterful.
Malkovich is in full rage mode here, and the way he barks at Pitt is the stuff of cinematic dreams. This is perhaps his best role in this decade, an opportunity for him to cut loose in sinister ways. He achieves a certain hilarity while remaining dead serious, a true gift. Clooney gets another bumbling-yet-endearing idiot role from the Coens, and he clearly relishes every moment with these guys. McDormand gets a little too irritating for the film’s own good, although I’m quite certain her character is supposed to be hated. Therefore, I guess she did a really good job because I couldn’t stand her. Ditto for Swinton, who is as despicable in this film as in her ice queen role in the Narnia movies.
Throw in great support from the likes of Richard Jenkins as a Hardbodies manager in love with Linda and J.K. Simmons as a fast-talking and dismissive CIA Superior, and you have perhaps the year’s best cast. The Coens just took home a bunch of Oscars for No Country for Old Men, and I’m thinking they’ll get snubbed for this one. Even so, I think Malkovich and Pitt deliver two of the year’s more memorable performances.