Leave it to the Coen Brothers, filmmakers who refuse to be pigeonholed, to follow up their Academy Award winning thriller “No Country for Old Men” with “Burn After Reading,” a goofy espionage farce.
The Coen’s seem to make two sorts of films. There are films like “Blood Simple,” “Fargo” and “No Country,” where their brilliance is immediately evident. Then there are movies like “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “The Hudsucker Proxy,” where at the end they seem nothing more than a solid good. It isn’t until later, and with repeat viewings, that their appeal truly starts growing on you. “Burn After Reading” with its scatological, offbeat humor falls into the latter category.
The plot centers on a CD containing the memoirs of a recently fired CIA agent (John Malkovich) that ends up in the hands of two gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who first attempt to black mail the agent and then to sell the disc.
Also in the mix are Tilda Swinton as Malkovich’s wife, Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) as Pitt and McDormand’s boss, and George Clooney as a U.S. Marshal. Clooney’s character seems to spend more time sleeping around than doing any work for the government. Not only is he having an affair with Swinton, but he eventually works his way into McDormand’s bed as well. All these characters get involved in an increasingly tangled web.
In terms of style, the film is a dead ringer for modern political and spy thrillers like “Michael Clayton” and “Syriana.” The big difference here is that all the players involved are more or less idiots — and self-obsessed idiots no less. The escalating plot builds huge in each character’s mind, when in fact nothing of true import has transpired.
The screwball antics of the plot are made all the funnier because the Coens keep the look and tone completely straight. There is a nerve-rattling score drumming up suspense for the most mundane actions, and when there are occasional bursts of violence they aren’t sugar coated.
Everyone in the exceptional cast is in good form. Pitt is outrageously funny as Chad, a sweet-natured exercise nut, who in a cast of dimwits shines dimmest. As an actor, Pitt doesn’t get enough credit. He is a diverse performer who has played a wide assortment of unique characters and you’ve never seen him quite like this.
The always reliable McDormand, who was so charming earlier in the year in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” is effortlessly funny and likable. Her desire to get plastic surgery is the driving force of the plot. The CD is her means to an end.
Clooney brings the same wide-eyed bewilderment that he showed in “O Brother Where Art Thou” and scores perhaps the film’s biggest laugh with the unveiling of the secret project he has been building in his basement.
Malkovich basically does what he always does, but he does it so well. A few do eloquently vulgar and violent as well as Malkovich. The scene Pitt and Malkovich share as Pitt attempts to blackmail him is just about perfect, with each actor giving precisely timed and measured performances.
Swinton, alas, is playing a variation of the cold witch that she’s been playing in such films as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Michael Clayton.” She does it extremely well, but she has more range and it would be nice to see her break out of this current typecasting.
The film also features brief but hilarious turns by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) as CIA men trying to figure out the mess “the league of morons” have gotten themselves into.
Coming off of “No Country,” this may be seen as a let down, and it is true this is not of the same caliber, but then it isn’t trying to be. The Coens have an absurdist, dark sense of humor and, like “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski,” this is film that showcases that sensibility.
Above all else, this is an exceptionally well-crafted film that will have those who possess a quirky sense of humor laughing hard consistently — and that’s an achievement in itself.