After making a movie about a bloody fiasco, the Coen brothers take ‘er easy with Burn After Reading. It’s an oddball comedy about morons extorting money from other morons. The brothers cast great actors to play the characters, especially Brad Pitt as brainless Chad Feldheimer. The new film’s less serious tone may confuse those who liked No Country For Old Men. However, Burn After Reading contains an equally twisted plot with sudden violence.
Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand) works as a personal trainer in Washington, D.C. Forty years old and lonely, she hates her body and wants to undergo expensive plastic surgery. However, her insurance won’t cover it. One day, Linda and her dull-witted friend and coworker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) find a lost CD containing files belonging to fired CIA analyst Osborn Cox (John Malkovich). Chad thinks they’re classified documents which gives Linda the idea to blackmail Cox. Chad thinks it’ll be easy, but what does he know? Their attempts at ransoming money from Cox get them involved with an affair Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having with U.S Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) as well as her divorce from Cox. In Coen brothers fashion, the results are shocking and demented.
I hope you enjoy watching selfish characters fight to stay inside their idiot bubbles. Osborn Cox is an irritable drip who’s writing his memoirs in between alcohol binges. His “mem-wah,” as he calls them, recalls his career analyzing barely sensitive information. Nevertheless, he becomes furious when he learns two nitwits have stolen a copy. His wife, Katie, an outrageously tactless woman, doesn’t care about anything happening in his life or even the man she’s cheating with, Harry. This doofus is a serial adulterer who brandishes his service revolver to impress dates.
You almost feel sorry for the main character, Linda, who uses a dating website where she doesn’t need to post her photo. A scene where she searches a park for which wretched soul answered her ad almost makes the movie a drama. But it’s clear she’ll do whatever it takes to achieve her dream even if she puts her friends and herself in danger. Listen to her enthusiastic reaction about finding Cox’s CD: “It’s like falling in front of an expensive restaurant.” Our other hero, Chad is the most likable person in the story. He’s a helpful sort, though there’s nothing floating around in his head besides Gatorade and his next iTunes playlist.
The actors give great performances. John Malkovich plays Osborn Cox with a short fuse. The punch to the face he delivers to Brad Pitt is the funniest bit of slapstick I’ve seen in awhile. Tilda Swinton’s facial expressions for Katie redefine clinical. One scene of hers spoofs her witch character from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I won’t say how, just watch. George Clooney returns to the fidgety, buggy-eyed mode that we saw in O Brother, Where Art Thou? In this movie, his eyes almost roll out of their sockets. As Linda, Frances McDormand displays the persistence of her sheriff role from Fargo but in a more pathetic form.
Brad Pitt’s Chad stands out most and I’m not just talking about his constant wearing of red workout clothes. His part is so radically different from his other movies. Pitt magically transforms into an imbecile here — impossible yes, but it’s true. Instead of a suave, cool movie star, we see a person who clearly doesn’t understand how the real world works. Watch his blank reaction when Cox explains that Chad’s blackmailing him by asking for a monetary reward for turning in the lost CD.
The Coens' usual critics will call Burn After Reading a plot exercise in stupidity but it’s still funny. The brothers obviously try to drive their characters completely batty. In the middle of the film, Harry causes an accident in Cox’s house and flees. He’s frantic though the CIA has cleaned up the mess without telling him.
The picture is as funny as this past summer’s Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder. Just listen as CIA officers played by J.K Simmons (Juno) and David Rasche attempt to figure out the whole brainless affair. But it’s not in same league as No Country For Old Men. I wish it had a few more wacko Big Lebowski moments before ending so fast. One bizarre moment does appear to have been thought up on another planet though. I’ll give you a clue. Harry is building something odd in his basement. I won’t say anything more. Not that you’d be able to predict it anyway.