Burn After Reading is a live-action cartoon in which the characters are much more amused with themselves than is the audience. Its narrative structure is intentionally distracting, but the detachment from the characters is strictly because of their cardboard personae. The primary failure of the film is the story, although the lack of laughter is a contributing factor in the unsuccessful final product.
Since the plot is of little importance, going everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, it deserves little summarizing. John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a CIA agent who is fired because of accountability issues derived from his increasing dependence on alcohol. When told of his impending fate, he lashes out in a tirade and storms out of the office, determined to write a scandalous memoir detailing the time spent at the agency.
His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is a perpetually unhappy person who attempts to alleviate this by having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). He is a married philanderer who spends most of the time on dating web sites, where he meets Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). She and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) have come into possession of a disk believed to be Cox’s C.I.A. files and demanded ransom for their safe return.
The story then takes off, going on various predictable and unforeseen paths, without ever generating interest. This is mostly due to the characters’ lack of depth, contributing to the feeling that their phony fates that have no real significance. The conclusion neatly wraps up all the loose ends, which is a complete departure from the random story structure previously established.
There is no insight into the intricacies of any character. One after another is marched onto the screen with some obligatory flaw that is supposed to be funny, leaving no explanation for the impotency of their actions. They seamlessly wander from one scene to the next with no reason for living other than to inflict psychological or physical pain on themselves or others. The film believes that adultery, murder, and exercise are funny, and although these can inspire laughter, it lacks an ear for dialogue to achieve this difficult task. Beating a man to death with a hammer does not inspire me to chuckle, although some in the audience found that somehow comical.
The film does not have any curiosity about its characters, giving no reason for their unhappiness. Osborne believes he is not an alcoholic because he waits until 5 p.m. to have his first drink, but what made him turn to alcohol in the first place? Katie seems to dislike everyone, which makes her affair with Harry seem futile. Harry is an ostensibly married, yet engages in multiple affairs for no discernable reason other than to complete his exercises. The actions of Linda, Chad, and Ted (Richard Jenkins) are easier to comprehend, but nonetheless lack any compelling qualities that might attract the audiences’ attention.
All the performances are satisfactory, but confined within a complicated and aloof script with dull characters. The standouts of the group are Pitt, who extracts some laughs as the idiot gym trainer, and Malkovich as an intolerant jerk with a salty mouth that allows little tact. The two funniest scenes in the film come from J.K. Simmons, who played the father in Juno, as the CIA director having a tough time figuring out what these people are doing in this mess and the motives behind their actions.
After the great No Country for Old Men, this is obviously an extreme disappointment from the Coen brothers. Although the excellence exhibited in that film cannot expect duplication, Burn After Reading lacks the inspiration and hilarity of The Big Lebowski, their 1998 comedy starring Jeff Bridges. This film concludes their idiot trilogy with Clooney after the humorous and focused Intolerable Cruelty and the wretched mess O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is probably on par with their latest effort. Burn After Reading reminds me in tone of Raising Arizona, which raises the question of why they would take a second endeavor into the type of screwball comedy that created the former disaster.
The worst aspect of Burn After Reading is the apparent lack of faith the Coen brothers have in their characters. This is alarming considering the great personalities derived from their previous work that have led to consideration of them as some of the most consistent artist in film. The existences of Linda, as a woman with low self-esteem who sees herself as incomplete without a man, and Ted, as a person so obviously in love with Linda that it consumes his entire life, seem outdated, overwritten, and depressing. They illustrate the central problem with Burn After Reading, which centers around pathetic people who have no reason to smile, but continue to laugh despite the cringes of an uncomfortable audience.