After “No Country for Old Men,” Ethan and Joel Coen are back in comedy mode, so this farcical thriller about dumb, middle-aged misfits caught in capricious CIA paranoia is more reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.”
It all begins in CIA headquarters, where an alcoholic analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is demoted to a low-level State Department position, which surprises his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who immediately plans to divorce him – to the chagrin of her lover, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a feckless federal marshal whose author wife is off on a book tour. Across town, two Hardbodies Fitness Center employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt)– whose emotional IQ barely exceeds their bodily temperature–get their greedy little hands on a computer disc containing a draft of Osborne Cox’s memoirs and attempt to blackmail him.
“Why in God’s name would they think that’s worth anything?” muses Swinton.
It’s not the contrived plot that matters here, it’s the lunatic execution – and the Coens are masters of broadly drawn characters and stylized visuals. Apparently, they asked their actors to ’embrace their inner knucklehead’ to embody their moronic characters. So John Malkovich spews acerbic indignation; Tilda Swinton’s glacial ice queen escaped from Narnia; George Clooney’s unabashedly sex-obsessed; Brad Pitt’s an endearing idiot, prancing in tight Spandex shorts; and Frances McDormand (who is married to Joel Coen) is pathetically relentless in her determination to ‘reinvent’ herself through expensive plastic surgery. In supporting roles, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, JK Simmons and Jeffrey DeMunn are exemplary.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Burn After Reading” is a silly, satirical 7. Or, as a bewildered CIA supervisor so aptly puts it, “Report back to me–when it makes sense.”