What movie stars Brad Pitt as a clueless fitness instructor, George Clooney as a shallow adulterous womanizer, John Malkovich as an angry, alcoholic would-be writer and Frances McDormand as a woman with low self esteem looking for love in all the wrong places? If you guessed Burn After Reading, you’d have earned yourself a cookie. In it, as only the Coen brothers can, these characters are twisted together in an asinine blackmail tale served with a hearty dose of abject goofiness (with traces of patheticness) on the side.
And just as the Coens did in their masterpiece Fargo, they’ve managed to get these A-list actors to buy-in to these bizarre and sometimes uncomfortable roles, making the off-balance premise less so.
In not so many words I’ll try and make some sense of the plot — just keep in mind that a) it’s really all about the characters and b) the film flows much better than my synopsis does. So here it goes: After quitting the CIA, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) decides to write his memoirs. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), isn’t happy with his decision so she copies their personal data to disc (including Osborne’s rough draft) and confides about it to Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), the man with whom she is having an adulterous relationship with. Enter Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke ( Frances McDormand), two instructors at a local gym that find the data filled disc and think it is classified material. Mayhem ensues when a) they try and get a “reward” for finding and returning the data, b) Linda starts hooking up with Harry, and c) the Russian Embassy and the CIA get involved.
It’s messy, no doubt, but the Coens manage to make it work most of the time. I say most of the time, because there are a few flat areas, which, as a viewer you can watch and think that no sane person would act that way in a given situation (even if these people aren’t exactly sane). There is also a little thing like the ending that comes about rather unnaturally and abruptly — almost as if the writers didn’t know how to end the film gracefully, so they just ended it.
But the actors shine in Burn After Reading. The trailers focused on Mr. Pitt the most, and for good reason — he deftly steps away from the suave, self assured characters he’s generally noted for playing and dons Chad’s doofus cap like a well worn gym sock. He’s so comfortable in those shoes, it makes me wonder if he is a bit of a goofball in real life. Likewise Clooney’s role is a bit daft too, but we’ve seen this type of role come from him before (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). I’m not entirely sure whether the role Malkovich takes on is a bad guy or a good guy (more like a good guy turned bad due to circumstances) but damn is he good at whatever it is. His presence overwhelms everyone else on screen with him.
Even with the out of place ending and scattered hiccups, Burn After Reading still showcases what good direction and strong dialogue read by good actors looks and sounds like. It’s an all around good time for everyone involved. And seeing as the movie is no longer in theaters (my review is better late than never), it should definitely be considered for your rental or purchase.