With all due respect to Joel and Ethan Coen’s monumental artistic and financial success with last year’s Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading” is potent shot of vintage Coen that works as a tremendous palate cleanser. A back-stabbing, double-crossing, exhaustively absurd caper with pitch-black comedic enhancements, “Burn” is a beauty; a charged symphony of impulsive idiots left to their own devices, leaving behind a trail of bloodshed and bewilderment with every move they make.
Forced out of his C.I.A. analyst job due to excessive drinking, Osborne (John Malkovich) is ready to write his memoirs and deal with his bitter wife (Tilda Swinton). When a CD copy of the rough draft ends up on the locker room floor of the Hardbodies fitness center, employees Chad (Brad Pitt, officially on another planet with this blissfully imbecilic performance) and Linda (Frances McDormand, also hamming it up agreeably) scoop it up and try to decode the contents. Thinking the files are explosive government secrets, the duo decides to blackmail Osborne to acquire the down payment for Linda’s cosmetic surgeries. Also in the mix is Harry (George Clooney), a Treasury agent who’s cheating on Osborne’s wife with Linda, sucked into this series of covert occurrences through his rabid paranoia and inability to pacify his sexual urges.
While the Coens have flirted with their black comedy roots in the recent past (“The Ladykillers,” “Intolerable Cruelty”), “Burn” shares its most biting qualities with the now-classic picture, “Fargo.” “Burn” isn’t nearly as spare as the 1996 Midwestern horror show, but it contains an identical arch attitude and willingness to goof off near obscenely stark circumstances. The material plays to the directors’ substantial sense of devious comic timing and use of aggression, culminating in a cartwheeling farce where anything goes in the most hilarious, horrifying ways.
Scripting themselves a cat’s cradle of a story that vigorously lampoons zigzagging espionage cinema, the Coens aren’t chasing anarchy with “Burn,” but an insular breath of behavioral madness. The picture is a valentine to idiots, spotlighting a collection of people too wrapped up in their own vanity to take even a passing notice of their outlandish actions. Harry is a sex-toy enthusiastic, lovesick man who’s cheating on his mistress, but can’t quite give up on his wife. Osborne is a sour drunk, watching his frigid life ripped out of his hands by two buffoons. And said buffoons, Chad and Linda, have feasted on one too many spy movies, trying to blackmail an already confused man, only escalating the problem when they march the prized CD of info into the Russian embassy, which doesn’t have a clue how to process such a brazen act of traitorous American behavior.
Everyone in “Burn” is after something for themselves, they simply aren’t sharp enough to achieve their goals. The Coens exploit the carnival of morons by layering on the accidents and adulterous tomfoolery in a gooey glaze of blunders and unfounded suspicion, methodically pushing the characters to extremes, either comedic or violent. Nobody stirs a pot quite like the Coens, and, backed by an enchanting score from Carter Burwell, the film fearlessly dives into the dense, endless mess eager to capture every single beat of surprise.
There’s a host of spoilery shocks in “Burn” that lunge out of nowhere, and a supporting turn by J.K. Simmons as the perturbed head of the C.I.A. is nearly worth the price of admission alone: observe the only individual in the movie who appears directly aware that he’s dealing with a handful of boobs making a mess of every conceivable action they undertake.
“Burn After Reading” isn’t all kindly misfortune. The picture is quick with brutality as much as it is with wit, requiring more sensitive viewers to buckle up extra tightly to absorb a Coen specialty: the rope-a-dope, speed-of-light switch from bellylaughs to pure revulsion. It’s a dance these brothers are exceptionally well versed at. Don’t let Pitt’s Malibu Stacy performance fool you: the Coen Brothers are up to their old tricks, and it’s phenomenal to see them flex their mischievous muscles again with such intoxicating results.