Part of the fun of “Burn After Reading” is that it feels like you’re looking at something you’re not supposed to. When the film begins, you’re literally dropped into CIA headquarters, playing voyeur to an analyst (John Malkovich) whose about to be fired from his position.
In subsequent scenes, you’re privy to infidelities, confidential divorce meetings and cosmetic surgery appointments, following such a vivid cast of characters that you feel like a spy.
Written and directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, “Burn After Reading” invites you into the convoluted and cockamamy story of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a lonely gym receptionist who would like a number of “necessary” plastic surgery procedures to attract men like Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). The problem: her insurance won’t pay for the procedures and she can’t afford them with her salary.
When her coworker, personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), finds a mysterious CD containing notes from ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich), they decide to blackmail Cox for a ton of dough.
What they don’t know: Cox’s CD is neither worth anything nor does he have the money Litzke and Feldheimer are looking for — especially not with ongoing divorce proceedings with his wife (Tilda Swinton).
The entire ensemble are excellent and the acting is wonderful. None of the characters in “Burn After Reading” are likable, but they’re eccentric and memorable — the type of people you’d gleefully gossip about if you knew they actually existed. “Burn After Reading” allows you to be that fly on their wall and eavesdrop on things you probably shouldn’t.
Joel and Ethan Coen are Shakespeares in the own rights. “Burn After Reading” is a ridiculous farce, but it’s so cleverly woven that you can’t help but become intimately entangled in the story. In some scenes, you’re literally in the closet with another character while watching another man undress. In other scenes, you’re watching the narrative from close sidelong profiles of men who rather not be seen.
But even if “Burn After Reading” lures us in like moths to a flame, it’s not a particularly nice movie. The humans and their failures are cruelly held underneath a microscope and we can’t help but watch.
“Burn After Reading” was written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki.