The Coen Bros. latest is an exercise in pitch black humor and absurdity that, after a bit of adjustment, is a solid comedy with some great work by the actors involved.
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a recently demoted CIA agent who decides quit and writes his memoirs instead. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is cheating on him with Harry (George Clooney), who is a Treasury agent that trolls the internet dating world for quick sex between, “getting a run in.” In Katie’s preparation to file for divorce, she makes a copy of Osborne’s files on his computer that in one way or another ends up in the hands of Hardbodies employees Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt). Linda is looking for love, and hopes to increase her chances with some desired plastic surgery, while Chad is a dimwitted trainer who sees a potential for some money from this, “secret CIA shit,” that the two have stumbled upon. A large tangled web of intrigue (?) begins and a whole lot of people get themselves into a mess of trouble over the loss of this CD of Osborne’s.
The film’s level of absurdity never fails and one thing after the other just keeps happening and you are left just shaking your head and smiling at all that is going on. The film takes a bit of getting used to though, as it is shot, scored and cut very seriously and you’re left feeling serious but want to laugh at the silliness that is unfolding in this odd amalgamation. The movie is shot like a spy thriller, the music is like something out of an espionage film, but the plot is just bizarre and inane; it takes a bit of getting used to. Luckily, once you settle in, the films style never really jars you again, and you are left to enjoy this odd and peculiar picture.
The actors all do a good job in the film here as well, and that makes the farce work, though no one competes with their best work they have done here. Clooney plays a silly idiot along the lines of previous Coen collaborations and plays it to a T. He is kind of charming, kind of a prick, kind of creep, and he blends it all into a likable guy. Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich get the least amount of screen time of the leads but they make the most of their time. Swinton is a cold hearted bitch and works well against Malkovich’s borderline insane and angry Osborne Cox. Malkovich also does a good job of capturing the slow crawl to insanity a man can go throw during crisis in his life. France McDormand is good here as well as the scheming, willing to do anything woman, as long as she gets her plastic surgery and is the reason this mess gets put into motion. Brad Pitt is the real stand out here though as the air-headed Chad and he will have you rolling every time he pops up on screen. He carries himself so well as the upbeat and positive Chad who thinks he can persevere through just about everything. Also worth mentioning is Richard Jenkins who is excellent as the owner of Hardbodies as well as JK Simmons in a couple of brief scenes as a CIA higher up.
In the end, Burn After Reading is a successful dark comedy that will only grow on subsequent viewings. The twisting plot will keep you guessing, the absurdity will keep you smiling, and the actors all do solid work. The adjustment to get what the Coen Bros. are doing style wise might be a bit of a road block for some, but just remember going in, everyone is kind of an idiot here and the plot is purposefully absurd. Another winner by the Coen’s but it will take some time to figure out where it falls in line among the rest of their pictures.