The Coen’s may have produced more highly praised films in their brilliant run, but none have the breezy celebration of pure idiocy as this comedic confection that allows top drawer performers to explore their inner fools.
The gangly plot involves two fitness club workers who stumble upon a disc left at the gym that they, in their exaggerated perception of self-importance, believe is a secret government file. The flaky Linda (Frances McDormand) and her coworker, the airheaded stud muffin named, naturally, Chad (Brad Pitt) decide to offer to return it to the government for a reward that Linda could use for plastic surgery. Little do they know that the disc actually contains the memoirs of smarmy, burnt-out CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) that has been copied by his stern, exasperated wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton). The horny pediatrician has hopes of using the information included on the disc to obtain a divorce, giving her the freedom to pursue her carnal frolics with Harry, a wide-eyed, womanizing lawman played by George Clooney.
As far as pulling-off this hair-brained scheme is concerned, the most obvious comparison one can make is that of a complex job done by do-it-yourselfers that should be done by a professional. As DIY-ers go, Linda and Chad would be challenged by the assembly of an IKEA coffee table, so having these two try to manipulate the government, the CIA and the law can only result in embarrassing and sometimes deadly hilarity.
The Coens are in complete control here, as usual, covering producing, writing and directing duties. Regular Carter Burwell is on hand to provide the satirical, drum-based score and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki temporarily replaces Roger Deakins, who had three other projects that year. The team concentrates their efforts on the absurdity of the situation as events begin to dovetail and accelerate before diving straight into the ground.
The roles were written with the actors specifically in mind and relies on a certain amount of courage and self-parody on the part of the cast to let their foolish flags fly. And fly they do. Watching this particular troupe of actors playing on their darker, sillier personae is great fun. Unlike most comedies, this one is more satisfying on each viewing as the true core of the humor comes straight from our previous familiarity with the performers. The plot is a mere garden trellis upon which the colorful performances can blossom.
Although I doubt it was the intension at the time, the film as also anticipates our current quandary having to do with mental defectives trying to collude with foreign governments as a means to an end, which adds an unexpected layer of timeliness to the exercise. It’s an unusual element that exists only because the Coen’s know their characters – and the farcical bent of humanity in general. The enjoyment value of their lightest entries only increases with age because of their prescience.
Burn After Reading is no Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis, or No Country for Old Men. There isn’t much to analyze, only to enjoy. It’s a joyfully observant gift from the brothers that keeps on giving.