Burn After Reading looks and sounds like a spy thriller: self-consciously dramatic score; many shots of dark-suited legs walking briskly down anonymous, sterile hallways at CIA headquarters; convoluted plot packed with deception and betrayal. But this is Coen brothers movie (and one of their “idiot” movies at that), so despite the slick trappings, Burn After Reading is always off-kilter, not out-and-out farce but not quite right, either.
The preview gives away all the best laughs, but even if the gags weren’t spoiled, the bleak undercurrent mutes some of the hilarity. Supposedly Joel and Ethan Coen wrote Burn concurrently with No Country for Old Men, their Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation, and if that’s not true, it should be: the same creeping nihilism permeates both films. In No Country, Kelly Macdonald’s breathtaking final scene pushes back against some of the darkness, but Burn revels in its own pointlessness and amorality to the very end. It’s funny, and it features some amusing performances, but it leaves behind a disconcerting void.
No one in Burn After Reading ever has a full picture of what’s going on, but the Coens don’t hide the facts from their audience. The tangle begins with disgruntled former CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), who brings home classified information for a tell-all memoir he wants to write. His icy wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is having an affair with treasury officer Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), accidentally copies that data along with some household financial information for her divorce attorney. And that copy falls into the hands of Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Laura Litzke (Frances McDormand), a pair of none-too-bright coworkers at a D.C. gym whose attempts at blackmail blow up all over everyone.
The actors obviously are having a grand time playing this collection of imbeciles. Malkovich’s Cox is hysterically tight-wound and self-righteous. As Pfarrer, Clooney lets his normal charisma go to seed to amusing (if slightly creepy) effect. Pitt, with frosted tips and the giddy energy of a high school cheerleader, is almost too convincing as poor dumb Chad. And McDormand makes Laura’s warped priorities funny by never letting even a shade of doubt pass over her delusions. Swinton is stuck playing the same iron-willed ice queen she’s played numerous times before, but she finds the humor where she can in her no-nonsense character.
But my favorite scenes are those with the inimitable J. K. Simmons. He plays a CIA chief completely confounded by reports of the fiasco. He’s not so much concerned about the leaked data as he is eager to sweep up the mess, which is funny but kind of disturbing, too. The situation is deadly serious to the Coxes and Pfarrer and Chad and Laura, but to the CIA, it’s just a lot of meaningless noise. None of it really matters, and the Coens embrace that interpretation, leading to a gleefully anticlimactic climax in which you start to suspect that the joke is on you, too. Nothing really matters. Life or death, happiness or despair, triumph or failure, it’s all just a coin flip. So why did you bother to follow this foolish story in the first place?