Burn After Reading (2008)Rated: R
Runtime: 1hr 36min
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton
Hard Bodies, Weak Minds
In a Nutshell
Three employees of Hardbodies Gym in DC (McDormand, Pitt and Jenkins) become witlessly embroiled in a sort of espionage misadventure, actually more of a Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy comic strip. A lot of what they think is happening is a product of their overactive imaginations — however, there are some very real consequences for these three, in way over their heads (literally), causing them to torpedo the lives of almost everyone around them. Too bad better role models weren’t available!
Their adversaries are two middle aged couples: a recently bounced mid-level CIA analyst (Malkovich), his wife (Swinton), best described as the Pediatrician-from-Hell, a sex-addled US Marshal (Clooney) who’s never fired his weapon in 20 years of service (remember what Chekhov said!) and his bland wife (Marvel), a kiddie lit authoress.
The macguffin is McDormand’s determination to render herself more competitive in the Washingon meat market (translation = internet dating scene). All she meets are losers, the best she thinks she can do with her current aging body. What she sets in motion to pay for her four required plastic surgeries creates havoc, bloodshed, disaster.
Suddenly she spots her big break, as she calls it, her “slip in the ice moment” when she comes into possession of Malkovich’s lost memoir of his CIA days. She drags her dopey coworker, Pitt, and eventually her much savvier lovesick boss, Jenkins, into the maelstrom. The result’s a fun romp á la Coen during which we witness multiple couplings and deceptions of the amoral Beltway crew, all of whom are pretty despicable human beings.
Highlighted here is the acting of these great stars. Pitt is wonderfully vacant as the bottled water-guzzling personal trainer; Clooney plays against type as the least likable of the lot, paired again with Swinton (as in Michael Clayton), who is great as a cold-hearted steely woman; Malkovich explodes with decades of repressed rage at the idiots and morons around him and, you know what, ironically, he’s right! McDormand is sweet but dim, Everywoman looking for love in all the wrong places.
Two great cinematic comic scenes: the first belongs to Clooney when he has a paranoid freakout in the park and the audience realizes that being paranoid is our world is quite understandable. The second is the last scene of the movie as the staff tries to bring the CIA supervisor up to speed on the recent happenings: he just blows them off and concludes, “What a Cluster-F—!” In typical business fashion, he resolves everything without ever bothering to unravel what’s happened.
Of course any scene Pitt is in is priceless. He captures the ineptitude of the common man trying to act like a gangster and failing spectacularly to pull it off.
Burn After Reading resembles the Sidney Lumet drama, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in its preoccupation with ordinary folk who think they can act like people in the movies (blackmail, assault innocents, drive getaway cars, stage break-ins) and soon find events spiraling out of their control. Cautionary tales, both, and each entertaining in its own way.