It’s hard to pick the funniest moment in Burn After Reading. Is it George Clooney’s dildo chair? Is it the photo of Richard Jenkins dressed as an Orthodox priest? Is it Brad Pitt’s dancing? All of these moments are great but it might be how the Coen Brothers invert the spy movies of the mid-2000s into their own twisted beast that makes Burn After Reading so funny. It skewers the likes of the Bourne series and Daniel Craig’s James Bond by dialing up the self-importance of these characters and dialing down the car chases and explosions.
Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) quits the CIA in fury over a demotion due to his drinking. He decides to write a memoir – pronounced “mem-wa” by the Francophile Malkovich – which is then copied by his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) along with his financial records as part of her plan to divorce him. Through happenstance the memoir falls into the hands of Hardbodies Fitness employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) who think it contains important CIA files and decide to use it to blackmail Cox. Somehow lothario Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and Hardbodies manager Ted (Richard Jenkins) get mixed up in it all.
The plot is complicated but it maintains its comedic energy from start to finish. The opening shot is satellite footage zooming in on the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Those not in the know will expect the typical Tony Scott/Matt Damon spy-thriller from the mid-2000s to unfold. Instead a screaming match between Osbourne and his superiors ensues with Malkovich out cursing everyone in the room. “I have a drinking problem?” he asks of a fellow agent. “You’re Mormon! Compared to you we all have a drinking problem!” It’s one of many great lines to come from both Malkovich and the rest of the ensemble.
The true star of the film is Frances McDormand. Burn After Reading is full of plenty of career-best comedic performances but they all orbit around the tragicomedy of McDormand’s sad sack turn as Linda. The film opens with her consulting with a doctor about cosmetic surgery. It’s all she cares about and it blinds her to the two true friends she has around her, Chad and Ted. as well as Ted’s real feelings for her. Her desperation as she waits for a call after trying to shop the CIA files to the Russians is palpable. Even as the head-in-hands moment causes the heart to ache it also elicits a giggle. It’s pure pantomime but it’s still a pantomime written by the Coens.
Chad, more than most of the characters, is too stupid for his own good. He’s the only hard body that actually works at Hardbodies but he’s a no-brainer. Despite this he’s the only one with the initiative to seek a ransom for the “secret CIA shit” as he calls it. Unfortunately his cluelessness lead to him actually saying “We have your shit” down the phone to Cox. Cox responds with his usual verbal abuse before punching Chad in the nose at their clandestine meeting. Despite everything that should make Chad supremely unlikable – the bad dye job, the boneheaded stupidity and gif-worthy dance moves – he actually is one of the more sympathetic characters but we probably have Harry Pfarrer more than Brad Pitt to blame for that.
Pfarrer becomes involved in this no-stakes plot by virtue of his sex drive. He is married to one woman, having an affair with Katie on the side and using internet dating to pick up other women including Linda. He even builds a manually operated dildo chair in his basement probably more for his own fantasies than for his wife. He too is an idiot. When Linda sends Chad to Cox’s house where Harry Pfarrer is now living, Harry shoots Chad upon discovering him in a closet. Believing he is being followed and that Chad is a spy Harry dumps the body and begins to come apart.
The only characters that don’t come apart are probably Katie and Ted. Katie because of her icy coolness and Ted because of how much of a morose loser he is that he’s probably learned to take such disasters in his stride. Of course Ted might not come apart mentally but Osbourne Cox makes sure he does so physically with a hatchet at the film’s end. Ted was only at Cox’s house at Linda’s behest to search Osbourne’s computer and although he’s shot before Osbourne hacks him to pieces Ted just sort of sighs and makes a sad attempt at escape. It’s a film full of sad losers and absolute morons.
Harry spends the entire film thinking he’s being followed. It turns out he is but only because his wife wants a divorce. Funnily he still thinks he’s being followed even after he assaults the PI hired by his wife’s lawyers. This leads to one of the funniest scenes of George Clooney’s career. Harry meets Linda in a park to talk about where to go with their relationship. Upon seeing one of Linda’s old dates staring at them and realising that Chad – whom Linda asked him to look for – is the man he shot Harry’s paranoia boils over. Clooney barely has to say anything instead using his face and gesticulating hands to accuse Linda and nearly everyone in the park of spying on him. He then runs off wide-eyed, fearful and intent on fleeing to Venezuela.
The end of Burn After Reading functions as a sort of summary but the film starts the way it ends: in utter confusion. Cox is shot by a CIA officer after he murders Ted. Harry is allowed to flee to Venezuela and Linda is paid off when the CIA cover the cost of her surgeries. The CIA Director (J. K. Simmons) is unsure if there’s any lesson to be learned before he says: “We learned not to do it again. But I’m fucked if I know what we did.” Burn After Reading is a film populated by self-important idiots who think the world revolves around them and, for a brief 90 minutes, it does. Nothing of real importance may happen in Burn After Reading but that doesn’t matter seeing as how it’s the funniest Coen Brothers film of the last ten years.