WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: The chance acquisition of a CIA agent’s memoirs, and an urgent need for money, lead gym colleagues Linda and Chet into the murky worlds of blackmail and espionage. They are way out of their depth, as they quickly realise; but Linda will go to any lengths – or at least the Russian Embassy – to get what she wants.
CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is unhappy, but he doesn’t know the half of it. He quits his job when accused – with every justification – of having a drinking problem, earning the wrath of his doctor wife Katie (Tilda Swinton); what he doesn’t know is that Katie is carrying on an affair with twitchy US Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), married to children’s writer Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel).
To prepare for divorce proceedings Katie downloads data, including the beginnings of Osborne’s rambling memoirs, from his computer; but the disc ends up on the floor of Hardbodies gym, where brainless personal trainer Chad (Brad Pitt) takes the information for top-secret intelligence and dollar signs light up in his eyes. Chad’s friend Linda (Frances McDormand) has a single-minded obsession with cosmetic surgery, so when Chad suggests wangling a reward out of Cox, she’s right on board. However, the blackmail game isn’t as easy as the pair suppose, Osborne proving more angry than grateful. They take their secrets to the Russians, while Linda begins her own affair with Harry, her manager Ted (Richard Jenkins) worrying adoringly in the background.
The phrase ‘what a tangled web we weave’ instantly springs to mind to describe much of the Coen brothers’ output, and Burn After Reading is no exception. Their particular skill is in creating pleasingly knotty tales of human weakness, unthinking greed and lust and the messy consequences that follow. Here, those weaknesses are combined, in Chad and (especially) Linda, with ruthless stupidity, cluelessness and determination meeting head-on to devastating effect.
Linda is funny, pathetic (in its true sense) and infuriating, while Chad is a lovely study in empty narcissism (persuaded out of Lycra for his meeting with Osborne, he still turns up on a bike, helmet in hand); and when things take a darker, bloodier turn, the dramatic tension is ramped up as the viewer knows about things Harry has done that Linda doesn’t. In the end, Linda gets exactly what she wants, but at a dreadful price – not that she would care, no doubt.
Predictably, performances are impeccable throughout. McDormand and Pitt make a wonderful double act, while Malkovich is expert at losing his rag (he even gets a catchphrase, ‘What the f***?’). Clooney enjoys a paranoid and unsympathetic role, callously pretending to Linda that his wife has left him while stringing Katie (a typically uptight Swinton) along. Richard Jenkins is majestic as the lovelorn Ted, prepared – though God knows why – to go to any lengths for an oblivious Linda, while J. K. Simmons only has two scenes as the CIA chief and still threatens to steal the movie.
That’s the good, then. Unfortunately, almost as much about Burn After Reading simply doesn’t work. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the tone of the film – it’s nowhere near as indulgent as The Big Lebowski, nor as misjudged as The Ladykillers – but I can understand those who find it self-satisfied or smug. It doesn’t recall the comic lawlessness of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, nor the claustrophobic sense of evil that pervades the Coen’s best work – Blood Simple, Fargo, Barton Fink – so it could easily be seen as falling uneasily between two stools.
Also, while there’s a depressingly sharp insight into the perfunctory bed-hopping of unhappy middle-aged professionals, it feels rather incomplete; Sandy’s story is finished in quick time, while Katie doesn’t get any resolution at all. In fact, most of the characters’ story arcs are wrapped up by proxy, and it’s most unsatisfactory, even allowing for Simmons. It’s almost as if the Coens made a decision to make a 90-minute movie, and as soon as they reached the ninety-minute mark they cut off the action, no matter what. Still, the wrap-up is, I surmise, a scarily accurate portrayal of how the chain of command works at the CIA.
Finally, there are a number of smaller things that I’m not so sure about, chief amongst them Clooney’s, erm, sex chair. I couldn’t work out whether it was for his wife, his lovers, or for himself – but then again, I didn’t really want to think about it too much. Also, if I’d thought about it a little more, I would have seen the film’s major shock coming a mile off.
If you’re in search of a black comedy with star names, you could do little better than Burn After Reading. It’s a smart, snappy story of wilful stupidity that spirals out of control, with each sillier moment balanced by something bleak, tense or shocking. On the other hand, you might find it irritatingly light for a Coen thriller, especially if you (like the critics at the time of release) are still high on the dizzyingly brutal fumes of No Country for Old Men. Or you might find it frustratingly heavy for a Clooney/Pitt caper. Or you might just be annoyed that it doesn’t bother tying up its loose ends. One way or another, I guarantee* you won’t love everything about it.
NOTES: Not in any legally binding or monetary sense, you understand.