Movie Review: “Burn After Reading”

It’s not often that I’m drawn to a movie by big-name actors, but when I read that the Cohen Brothers’ Burn After Reading starred both Brad Pitt and George Clooney, I got interested, and when I found myself in need of something to do, I went down to the movie theater with Burn After Reading in mind.

The film opens in Langley, Virginia, at C.I.A. headquarters (is there even anything else in Langley?), where we meet analyst Ozzie Cox (played by John Malkovich), who is demoted due to a “drinking problem,” then quits and goes home to his ice-queen wife and failing marriage. This is the point where it gets very tricky to try to summarize the film, for fear of accidentally ruining the jokes or giving away the dramatic twists, which are sprinkled liberally and unexpectedly throughout the film.

Suffice to say that Chad (Brad Pitt), an employee at a gym, accidentally comes into possession of secret information, and gets everyone around him embroiled in a twisted and complex web of lies and intrigue that also manages to involve Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

I’ve complained before about overly complex plots (Syriana being the inevitable example of a plot too twisted for its own good), and Burn After Reading is proof that it’s not just the fact that I was raised on plotless action-movie drivel. You see, although the plot of Burn After Reading is very intricate, it’s also accessible and perfectly understandable. The Cohen brothers manage to flawlessly weave together the lives of at least four major, well-rounded characters more seamlessly than I’ve ever seen. The film is like a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine: clever set-ups and excellent design allow what should be an impossible plot to come together believably. Even though every single character is stupid or shallow in their own way, they’re all stupid and shallow in the same way that real people are stupid and shallow. Pitt plays a goofy, air-headed bicyclist. Malkovich is a distant and somewhat sullen dullard. Clooney brings to life a nervous, paranoid ex-U.S. Marshall. Actress Frances McDormand is the familiar sufferer of a midlife crisis, bent on renewing herself in every way but the important ones. At first, the characters were hard to empathize with, but in the end, they all have a weird likeability.

The movie is also incredibly funny, with the kind of dark, bewildered deadpan humor that hits me just right. Although the plot is potentially grim and serious, it’s impossible not to laugh. Burn After Reading reminds me in some ways of the late great Kurt Vonnegut’s dark, sadistic, cynical humor.

This is the point where I’m supposed to lay out some criticism for the sake of balance, but with this particular film, that’s pretty hard to do. It’s so incredibly well-constructed and entertaining that I can’t think of any obvious dead spots or plot holes. The worst I can do is say that the dialogue seemed slightly stilted a few times.

That’s it. That’s all the criticism I can come up with. Burn After Reading is a wonderful satire of the shallow superficiality of our lives, of the veneer of solidity and invincibility over our government (and our relationships), and it’s also hilarious in a wonderfully subtle, understated way.

Final Judgment: Excellent. You should definitely see this film.

Rating:

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     `     (9.5/10 asterisks)