Burn After Reading is a comedic comeback of sorts for Ethan and Joel Coen, who took slight missteps with their last two attempts at laughter, Intolerable Cruelty and their remake of The Ladykillers. (While I liked Intolerable Cruelty and loved The Ladykillers, they were not critical or box-office successes.) Cruelty in particular was something of a disappointment, with a long line of writers and a vibe that was far too conventional for these guys.
With Burn, they go back to their particular brand of gonzo comedy. They have complete control, an impeccable crew and some of the best actors in the business, all seemingly having the time of their lives. The result is a blast on par with their Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski.
A jaded, self-important CIA agent named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) gets threatened with demotion and quits in the film's opening moments. We don't truly learn why, although a drinking problem is mentioned. Osborne tells his prissy wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), that he plans to write his memoirs, and she's not impressed. When a disc containing his memoirs mysteriously shows up on the floor at his gym, Hardbodies, Osborne's supposedly top-secret information winds up in the hands of bumbling idiots.
The idiots are personal-trainer Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), Chad's plastic-surgery-obsessed co-worker. They conspire to blackmail Cox, who is none too pleased. Meanwhile, Cox's wife is having an affair with U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who in turn is Internet-dating many women, eventually including Linda. All of these characters' lives begin to intersect and spiral out of control. Eventually, the CIA--and even the Russians--get involved.
It's all remarkably silly, yet the Coens make it so grandiose. There are moments in this film that are as funny as anything they've ever put on screen. When Chad and Linda make their first phone call to Osborne Cox, Pitt and Malkovich mine comic gold. Harry's basement-hobby revelation is hilarious, as is a shooting-death moment that is a mammoth shocker.
How is it that composer Carter Burwell has never been nominated for an Oscar? He's composed the music for every Coen brothers movie, including this one, and it's high time the Academy took notice. His work here magnifies everything in the film, and his contribution is massive. If nothing else, the Academy should give him a makeup Oscar for his Fargo score.
Pitt, who was so funny in his True Romance cameo as Floyd the stoner, steals his scenes as Chad. Whether he's injuring a poor customer's ass during a stretching routine, or he's getting punched in the face during a blackmail session, Pitt (who, from some angles, is beginning to look like a young Benicio del Toro) is nothing but masterful.
Malkovich shows his full rage, and the way he barks at Pitt is the stuff of cinematic dreams. This is perhaps his best role in this decade, an opportunity for him to cut loose in sinister ways. He achieves a certain hilarity while remaining dead serious--a true gift. Clooney gets another bumbling-yet-endearing role from the Coens, and he clearly relishes every moment with these guys. McDormand gets a little too irritating for the film's own good, although I'm quite certain her character is supposed to be irritating. Therefore, I guess she did a really good job, because I couldn't stand her. The same goes for Swinton, who is as despicable in this film as she is in the Narnia movies as the White Witch.
Throw in great support from the likes of Richard Jenkins as a Hardbodies manager in love with Linda, and J.K. Simmons as a fast-talking and dismissive CIA superior, and you have perhaps the year's best cast.
The Coens just took home a bunch of Oscars for No Country for Old Men, so I'm thinking they'll get snubbed for this one. Even so, Malkovich and Pitt deliver two of the year's more memorable performances.