“Burn After Reading” is another in a long line of films that have been done an injustice by a studio’s official ad campaign. Based on the trailers, one would think that Brad Pitt is in nearly every scene, and that George Clooney is hardly in the movie at all. Neither is true, though both turn in inspired performances. The trailers show way too much of Pitt, but I say that only because familiarity with his scenes just spoils the happy surprise that you feel when you see him acting like such a goofball. And the relative lack of Clooney sightings in the trailer just gives you a greater appreciation for his “cast against type” performance as a totally paranoid, sex-addicted…well, it’s never really clear exactly what he does, except that he apparently works for Treasury and is (was?) somehow involved in “security.”
The temptation when you see the movie is to try and characterize it as a classic Coen recipe – start with a stock of “Blood Simple,” and then add two teaspoons of “Fargo,” a dash of “The Big Lebowski,” maybe even a pinch of “Raising Arizona” (others might find a few more ingredients from the Coen cookbook). But all you really need to know is that it is a classic screwball comedy as imagined by the Coens. And if that sentence doesn’t make any sense to you, then you should probably skip this movie.
You can’t really say too much about the details of the plot with spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it (and besides, it’s so complicated that it would take a page-and-a-half just to summarize it). In a way, it’s like “North by Northwest” completely turned on its head. People who don’t really have any idea what they’re doing find themselves in a situation involving spies and intrigue, but unlike Cary Grant they’re so dumb that they really don’t know what to do about it. And unlike Cary Grant, their motives are not pure –anyone who is truly innocent pays a price. Brad Pitt may just be trying to help out a friend, but Frances McDormand is a lot closer to William H. Macy’s Jerry Lunderberg than she is to Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill. She wants what she wants, and she doesn’t really care whether anyone else has to pay a price for it.
Everyone in the movie is great. John Malkovich hasn’t had an opportunity to chew the scenery like this since “Con Air,” and he makes the most of it. Clooney’s paranoia is hilarious, as are his quirks (an appreciation for great flooring and intricate “devices”). Pitt deserves an award just for his willingness to make fun of himself. Frances McDormand is her usual reliable self, Tilda Swinton is good in a truly thankless and unsympathetic role, and in smaller roles as CIA company men, J.K. Simmons and David Rasche are spot on.
J.K. Simmons probably sums up the movie with his line, “report back to me when it all makes sense.” This one probably won’t win many awards, but it represents an offbeat kind of film-making that is all too rare in this day and age.