Reminding of an absurdist version of Syriana, the movie revolves around dim-bulb gym employees Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) as they find a disc containing the memoirs of recently fired CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). Mistaking Cox's memoirs and financial statements for top-secret information, Linda and Chad attempt to blackmail the pompous, alcoholic analyst. Cox's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, womanizing federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) are eventually drawn into a plot through a chain of events too nonsensical to describe, and I mean "nonsensical" as a compliment. Since Blood Simple, the Coens have returned again and again to the idea of plans gone awry, becoming masters of the convoluted plot. In Burn After Reading, it's the characters' superficial, self-centered natures that spirals the plot into levels of comic absurdity. The film's comic approach recalls Dr. Strangelove, starting as a straight-faced thriller before the plot is led astray by plastic surgery, sex toys and Dermut Mulroney. No less a comment on the state of our union than No Country For Old Men, the Coens' newest comes with the suggestion (like an R-rated version of the second half of Wall-E) that our self-destruction will be brought about by our desire to have things newer, faster, easier, cheaper and now.
Handsomely shot by DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Burn After Reading actually works pretty well as an example of the genre it's subverting. Exposing the essential arbitrariness of the topical thriller, the Coens succeed at deflating the self-importance of the "serious" thrillers that have become fashionable in recent years. Many of those star Clooney, of course, who gleefully sends up his macho appeal here - Pfarrer is like a comic flipside of Michael Clayton (the Coens would have correctly seen that film's protagonist as a schmuck), a barrel-chested masculine archetype who, at heart, wants his mommy. There are no heroes in the film, and no Lebowskis either; the only reasonable and decent character, gym manager Ted (Richard Jenkins, on a roll this year), is eventually punished for his decency. The audience's only surrogates are two CIA officers (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, both brilliant) left to pick up the pieces. If we don't see ourselves in the buffoons, we're left, like Simmons, to lean back in our chairs and exclaim, "Jesus fucking Christ."
It'll be interesting to see if Burn After Reading improves after repeat viewings. The first time I saw The Big Lebowski I liked it, but it only revealed its brilliance around the third or fourth time. Right now, Burn After Reading seems like a top-notch comedy, its sharp dialogue worthy of Hawks and Wilder complete with the needless vulgarity their movies would certainly contain were they working today. It's a movie filled with acidic pleasures, among them Malkovich's upper-class twit, Swinton's low-key sadism, and Pitt, as much of a revelation playing a perpetually upbeat moron as he was playing Jesse James. Best of all is Frances McDormand as Linda, who, with her shallow, self-serving provincialism, tendency to act before thinking and lack of understanding about contemporary U.S. relations with Russia, reminded me exactly of - well, it was a much-needed laugh.