Burn After Reading

[B] Espionage comedy

  • Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

The Coen brothers are back to their old tricks, mining the dark comic prospects of a crime gone wrong. While Burn After Reading lacks the humanity of Fargo and the blazing, non-stop lunacy of Intolerable Cruelty, it still provides 95 very entertaining minutes.

The Washington D.C.-set plot concerns a couple of idiotic gym employees (Frances McDormand and a wonderfully silly Brad Pitt) trying to extort a disgruntled former CIA analyst (John Malkovich). Complicating the festivities is a married Treasury employee (George Clooney) who’s sleeping with the analyst’s wife (Tilda Swinton in cold bitch mode) and falls for McDormand’s character, as well.

I didn’t mention Swinton’s character’s career. Let’s just say it’s not important to the story but makes a very good gag.

The Coens aren’t going for realism here. No one acts like a real human being, nor wins our sympathies. The brothers want us to laugh at the characters’ well-earned misfortunes, and by and large we do. But there are moments when the laughs curdle with horror. When someone gets shot point-blank in the head in Fargo (the Coen’s best film IMHO), we’re shocked. When that happens in Intolerable Cruelty (their funniest), we laugh. In Burn After Reading, we laugh while shocked.

All the big names in the cast play their roles big, broad and funny. Once again, Clooney channels Cary Grant in his ability to make fun of his good looks and suave demeanor. On the other hand, you’d never guess from his asexual exercise nut (a bad haircut over an empty brain) that Brad Pitt built his stardom on sex appeal.

But the real movie stealer is the ever-reliable J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman movies, as well as Juno‘s father). He only has a couple of scenes as a CIA superior who wants the problem to go away, but he makes the most of them.