If you enjoyed visiting Fargo with the Coen Brothers, and want to take a darkly funny vacation from No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading is a Washington DC-based delight. While not as effortlessly layered as Fargo, Burn After Reading features a fantastic cast who are clearly having a ball. Like Fargo, Burn After Reading concerns a dumb crime perpetrated by less than bright criminals. Unlike Fargo (or No Country for Old Men, for that matter), there isn’t a moral compass character for you to identify with, which lends the film a feeling of a farce with deadly consequences.
Brad Pitt is hilarious as Chad, a fitness instructor at a DC-area gym who gets his hands on what he thinks is a top-secret disk. He and his coworker Linda (a hysterically funny Frances McDormand) try to squeeze a little money out of the disk’s owner, a recently fired CIA agent named Osborne Cox (a fiercely fantastic John Malkovich). Cox had saved his unintelligible “memwas” (memoirs) onto the disk as a way to stick it to The Agency, but he’s in no mood to bargain with the inept extortionists.
Cox's starchy wife, played marvelously by Tilda Swinton, is having an affair with a married FBI agent/inventor played with gleeful gaucheness by George Clooney. Richard Jenkins plays the gym manager who’s smitten with Linda, while J.K. Simmons perfectly captures an exasperated yet God-like CIA chief who gets regular updates on who’s doing what to whom. Numerous plot threads intersect as Linda meets Clooney’s philandering wannabe playboy online and starts a relationship with him, Osborne Cox meets his blackmailers and someone is always spying on someone else.
I loved this film, so much more than other Coen “favorites” like The Big Lebowski. McDormand in particular mines an amazing amount of depth out of her superficial character, a woman obsessed with plastic surgery as a way to “reinvent” herself. Pitt hasn’t been this original and good since Twelve Monkeys, while Clooney, Swinton and Malkovich are a joy to watch. It’s great to see that the Coen Brothers still have their comic touch, and I eagerly look forward to the next of their geographically centered comedies.
UPDATE: Burn After Reading is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.