Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt
Not many films make you sit back and just continuously say “oh my goodness” for the entire runtime of the feature. Fortunately, the amalgamation of everything occurring in this truly ridiculous and wild feature will leave you without words, but in the end, everything has a purpose. Burn After Reading opens up a pandora’s box into the actions of some truly selfish people as they all get caught in each other’s webs.
After being let go from his position with the CIA, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) begins attempting to write a memoir while a disk containing classified information falls out of his bag at the gym. This disk falls into the hands of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who’s obsessed with getting plastic surgery, and the very exuberant Chad (Brad Pitt). Together the pair attempt to utilize this information to their advantage.
Going through their filmography, it appears the Coen Brothers have three different gears when operating their stories. The one in the middle holds the tone for most of their films, while the very serious contains stories like No Country For Old Men and Blood Simple. On the other extreme, you have the incredibly silly features where things go loose, which includes Intolerable Cruelty and this film. Nothing about this feature can be taken seriously because the characters are incredibly facetious. However, it certainly makes for a wholly entertaining time seeing what direction the narrative will go.
The film begins with an expletive-filled rant by the newly-fired Osbourne, which demonstrates what kind of story we’re into. Everything else is played for laughs and done so in an incredibly effective manner. While Osbourne kicks everything off, it really comes together with the introduction of Linda, Chad, and the incredibly paranoid Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). They all get caught in this web spun by Osbourne even with him being on standby for most of the feature. Linda Litzke takes on the role of a protagonist, as she’s on a path to look better physically through cosmetic surgery. Unsurprisingly, her insurance will not cover these elective surgeries, and the utter shock of no one willing to give her the money is hilarious. Her character sums up the entire idea of this feature being a farce of something that could have been a serious story.
Many espionage features take the idea of handling confidential information seriously, but in Burn After Reading, it simply becomes a plot device for Linda’s cosmetic needs and Chad having some fun. Watching this feature convinced me that we do not deserve Brad Pitt and he continually proves his ability to succeed in any sort of role. We know he can play the incredibly dramatic and charismatic roles, but he can also excel in being a complete goofball. Portraying the character of Chad left me out of breath at times, because everything coming out his mouth was so hilariously dumb yet weirdly profound at times. Whether it be his weird dance moves or when he gets visibly upset from being punched in the face, his childish demeanor takes the edge off of everything. As strange as it may be to say, Pitt’s portrayal of Chad may be one of his greatest works as an actor.
George Clooney also shines, as he portrays a snarky, arrogant, and shallow man. The Coens know how to utilize him so well. Harry, apart from Chad, probably has the greatest lines in the entire feature. Whether it be his nice surprise of being to get a run in or his incessant paranoia of everything occurring in his life. In the end, he’s truly a shell of a man he purports himself to be but his development throughout the story will leave you laughing all the way through.
Everything in the feature comes together well, as these individuals struggle with these life-changing issues, those with power just sit back and close the book like nothing happened. The update sessions one of the analysts have with the unnamed supervisor portrayed by J.K. Simmons sums up this entire idea. Seeing how he tries to wrap his mind around everything we saw occurring may be the greatest expression of someone being told the plot of this film. So many different moments make you want to shake your head in disbelief but that’s what happens when all of these selfish people get in the way of each other’s perceived happiness.
Burn After Reading truly clicked with me after the second viewing, as I could see what the Coen Brothers attempted to do with this story. It’s not a film that should be your first experience with these filmmakers, as their other works inform their attempt with this feature. Every character has a comic moment of genius and it’s filled to the brim with small moments worth remembering for the big climax. A truly enjoyable movie and one to just experience for all of the madness on display.