The themes that run through most of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, particularly those they write rather than adapt, revolve around impossible situations that their oddball characters find themselves in. Their characters exist outside of normal society and are often, or can be, blinded by their singular desire. Sometimes it’s a cop who wants a baby at all costs, or a husband so desperate for cash he plots his wife’s murder. In Burn After Reading, there are many characters with different objectives, but it is the quest of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) that sets things in motion.
What’s funny about the film is that Linda’s desires are for a series of surgeries to do various things to her body – shrink her buttocks, get rid of her flabby arms, breast augmentation, and perhaps a face lift. Her insurance company won’t pay for it, so she starts cooking up a scheme to extort a low level government worker, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), by selling the contents of a CD her co-worker found in the women’s locker. Linda and Chad (Brad Pitt) are trainers at the local Hardbodies gym.
Meanwhile, Osborne Cox has his own problems. He gets fired from his job for having a “drinking problem,” and he has a wife (Tilda Swinton) who is sleeping with someone else (George Clooney). His life is spiraling out of control when Chad reaches him by phone in an attempt to extort money from him for the contents of the CD.
None of the characters have any real connections to anyone else ­– there is mostly deception. They deceive one another and they even deceive themselves, believing what they want to believe about people and not wanting to hear the truth. This counts for the government, too, or “Intelligence,” as it tends to keep cleaning up the messes without knowing, or wanting to know, what it is they are cleaning up.
To that degree, Burn After Reading, for all of its silliness, is an indictment of U.S. intelligence, painting it as an entity that does not operate within the law but well outside of it. It’s sort of what everyone imagines the CIA would be like: making bodies disappear, spying more because it’s expected of them than because they are sinister.
After such a hard-hitting and violent film as No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading functions as a pallete cleanser for the filmmaking duo. Expensive sets, an A-list cast, resplendent in black humor, the Coens and their actors seem to be having so much fun that it bleeds onto the screen. Pitt, in particular, is in his element as the naive Chad.
If there is a snag in the film, it’s that McDormand herself seems slightly miscast. The character of Linda is funny; it’s just that she’s not that believable in that part. McDormand does her best and, like Pitt and Clooney, spends a lot of time trying to make her character appear stupid. It works with Pitt, not so much with Clooney and McDormand.
Not everyone will like the film; if you don’t think the Coens’ brand of humor is funny in the first, place you are not going to enjoy one minute of this flick. But if you find yourself laughing at their movies even a little bit, you’re going to be vastly entertained by Burn After Reading. It will sit right alongside Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski as that movie to pull out when nothing else will do.