Returning to the sharp comedy that has defined most of their films, and a crime-laced plot that also recalls many of their past movies, Burn After Reading seems more like something that the Coens would have made before No Country for Old Men, perhaps during the uncertain times of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers--which would have made it the stronger of the those films--or perhaps during the supremely confident times that resulted in Fargo and The Big Lebowski--which would have made Burn After Reading the weakest of that time. But as it stands, Burn After Reading comes on the heels of No Country for Old Men--the culmination of the Coens' mastery of making movies--and at first glance it just doesn't seem to sit right.
John Malkovich co-stars as Osborne Cox, a CIA analyst disgruntled after being demoted, who decides to write a tell-all memoir. Osborne is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton), a shrill, cold-blooded harpy who is cheating on her husband with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a womanizing federal marshal carrying on multiple affairs. At the urging of her divorce lawyer, Katie makes copies of Osborne's personal files, including the notes for his book, which are burned on to CD, and then quickly misplaced in the locker room at a gym, where it lands in the hands of personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, Chad has enough intelligence to realize the disc has information that is important to someone. Unfortunately for him, his friend and co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is a self-hating woman looking for a way to pay for the plastic surgery she is convinced will fix her miserable life. Linda and Chad become convinced they can use the disc to blackmail Osborne, but things become increasing complicated when the hard-drinking agent refuses to play by their rules. Undeterred, Linda pushes Chad, as things become more complicated, and the stakes become ever higher.
If there is such a thing as "standard Coen Brothers filmmaking," then Burn After Reading would have to be it. All of the quirky idiosyncrasy that sets the tone for their work is found in abundance, and are best exemplified by the performances of George Clooney, whose paranoid sex addict fits in well with his previous Coen characters, and Brad Pitt, who steals the show with his high energy performance. Supporting performances by J.K Simmons and David Rasche as a CIA supervisor and the agent reporting back to him also give the film its standard Coen Brothers tone. But for all the film does have, there is something crucial missing, and that is central characters you can care about.
Like many of the Coen's other films, Burn After Reading mixes crime and comedy, with a fair amount of violence thrown in for good measure. That violence, which has been used to punctuate comedies like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, doesn't have the same effect this time around. The violence in Burn After Reading--two scenes in particular--is so brutal and unsettling that it becomes a distraction from which there is no returning. These scenes, which would seem more in line with the Coens more serious work, become a serious flaw that hampers Burn After Reading.
The violence in Burn After Reading creates a problematic distraction in the second half, but if there is one fatal flaw in the movie it is the fact that most of the characters are so unpleasant, the film has no one to really care about. This is especially true of Swinton and even more so of McDormand, whose Linda Litzke is so unlikable that she becomes an agonizing thorn in the side of the film. Both women are portrayed as manipulative opportunists--one of them cold and calculating, the other flighty and irrational--whose desires and low self esteem lead them to decisions that destroy the lives of all the men they come into contact with. And the fact that any of the men in the film would be stupid enough to do anything for Katie or Linda also becomes problematic, because neither of them has enough personality, charm or sex appeal to warrant helping them cross the street, let alone infidelity or blackmail.
Burn After Reading is not a bad film, but it is not the sort of Coen Brothers movie that screams of modern classic. It is a decent, mildly entertaining film coming from two filmmakers who are capable of something better. Perhaps if the film were not their follow-up to the sublime No Country for Old Men, then it would not seem like as much of a letdown. But the fact of the matter is that Burn After Reading is not as good as No Country for Old Men, or The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Blood Simple or most of the other films that define Joel and Ethan Coen as the talents that they are.