“Intelligence is Relative”
Ah, those whacky Coen Brothers. They’ve done it again. Burn After Reading’s plot is such a cooked up, convoluted, utterly confusing, overly complicated and in many ways brilliant one that to reveal all the parts of it would be at once both counterproductive and, just downright hard to do in fact. I think the quote that bests sums it up was delivered by J.K. Simmons playing one of the CIA officials, who quips in a funny scene to one of his underlings “Report back to me… I don’t know… when it makes sense.” He’ll be waiting a long time indeed. They key to enjoying this movie I believe is to understand that is but a tall tale or a yarn being spun for your amusement rather than intense character study with people you are supposed to care deeply about. Instead of getting hopelessly caught up in the futility of exploring the plot though, I will give you a brief synopsis of the premise that you could have gotten by watching the previews for this movie.
Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand who play Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke respectively, both work at a gym called ‘Hardbodies’… One day the janitor there discovers a computer disc someone left behind which appears to contain highly sensitive “CIA shit” as Pitt’s character puts it. Ms. Litzke is a woman in the midst of a mid life crisis and who desperately wants a series of surgeries to enhance her physical appearance, “I’ve gone just about as far as I can with this body” she says in one scene. So, deciding they’ve hit the jackpot, Chad and Linda make the decision to use the disc to blackmail its owner into paying them a rather large sum of money for its return.
The owner of said disc turns out to be a man named Osborne Cox, played here by the great John Malkovich. (Who did I happen to mention attended the same High School as yours truly?) He is understandably perturbed that his “sensitive” information has somehow fallen into the hands of these two “morons” as he calls them, but that’s far from the only problem he has in his life at the moment. His wife Katie, played here by Tilda Swinton, is not only a condescending bitch of the highest order, but also happens to be having an affair with a treasury agent named Harry Pfarrer, played here by George Clooney. Pfarrer, who is also married, to a noted children’s author, also happens (through an internet dating site) to begin another extra-marital affair with Ms. Litzke… All the while unbeknowst to him his own wife is also in the middle of her own affair while she’s out on the road promoting her new book. “And so it goes” as the late great Kurt Vonnegut used to opine…
It does dawn on you at a certain point that the main agents pushing this plot forward (albeit unknowingly) are the women, both Clooney and Malkovich’s wives, as well as McDormand’s character. The men here are for the most part, just deer caught in the headlights, forced to react to these highly irregular situations as they present themselves. The themes of greed and other various sins in their various forms are explored here thoroughly, whether it be Clooney’s character and his sexual greed, Pitt’s character’s material greed for the potential monetary reward to be gained from his possession of the aforementioned disc, Malkovich’s character’s alcoholic addiction and intellectual superiority complex, his wife’s overall malice towards everyone, or McDormand’s character’s amazingly shallow tunnel visioned vanity in regards to the cosmetic surgeries she wants to have performed.
Yet regardless of those philosophical quandaries, what is for certain is that all of these people’s lives will through the course of the movie become interconnected to each other in a series of events that will leave lasting and permanent changes to each of them. However, whether they will leave lasting and permanent changes to the viewer is somewhat debatable.
I laughed heartily at the absurdity of several of the scenes in Burn After Reading. That classic Coen Brother’s style of dialogue and their unique way of creating surprising situations is as prominently featured here as it has ever been, but the true delight of this film is found in the outstanding ensemble cast. Frances McDormand receives the most amount of screen time of any of the female characters. There’s still a bit of that Sarah Palin-esqe “You Betcha” vibe about her left over from her character of Marge Gunderson from the Coen’s Academy Award winning film ‘Fargo’. However, the stoic dignity of that role is gone completely here and inserted instead is more of the same sort of inept comical desperation that defined William H. Macy’s role from that very same movie.
John Malkovich here plays a sort of ‘working alcoholic’, the kind that would be offended at the notion of being accused that they were drunkards, but still posses a kitchen shelf full of assorted liquors nonetheless. His character arc is the most interesting one in the entire film, considering where he is when the film begins, and where he winds up at the end. Tilda Swinton reminded me a little bit of Katherine Hepburn here as she is apt to do. She is, how shall I put this… a bitch, but a rich one, who is quite accustomed to getting what she wants and has no patience whatsoever for the buffoonery that she sees accumulating all around her.
George Clooney here completes his ‘Idiot Trilogy’ as the Coens have dubbed it, with the previous two entries consisting of ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ and ‘Intolerable Cruelty’. In this film he still has a slither of that patented Clooney charm, but most of the time it is completely concealed in layers of nervous neurosis displayed through his fast paced banter and comical facial expressions, as opposed to his usual relaxed wit. Brad Pitt however, is featured in a way that I personally have never seen him used before. To put it mildly, he is a complete doofus, but a gloriously hilarious doofus at that. His contribution of physical comedy to this movie make it a must see in and of itself.
Pitt and Clooney do not have much interaction with each other throughout the movie but their one scene together is the high-water mark of the film for me in terms of pure comedy and the wonderfully emotive and over the top facial reactions of both of them at certain times around this point. I would say more, but to spoil any part of this movie would be a crime on the level of high treason… Speaking of which… Ah… I better not… Just go see the movie. You’ll laugh, and be astonished that such people can actually exist, even in a fictional universe.