When the worlds of Washington, DC political intrigue, infidelity, fitness centers and internet dating intersect and collide in a darkly hilarious fashion, you must be watching a film by the Coen brothers. Burn After Reading, Joel and Ethan Coen's follow-up to last year's critically lauded award winner, No Country for Old Men, was actually written by the duo as they were adapting No Country, but the two films couldn't be more different.
The colliding worlds in Burn After Reading involve a CIA analyst named Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who's summoned to a top-secret meeting only to find out that the secret is he's being demoted due to his drinking problem. Cox blows a gasket and quits rather than taking the demotion, planning to spend his new-found spare time working on his memoirs and refining his drinking. Cox is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton), a icy pediatrician with the worst bedside manner imaginable, and she's less than sympathetic to her husband's life crisis.
Katie's having an affair with married federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney); in addition to his affair with Katie, Harry's been trolling an internet dating site looking for more women to fill his spare time, of which he seems to have an abundance. Katie, of course, doesn't know about Harry's side affairs, and now that her husband has left his job and is thus, by her estimation, even more of a loser than he previously was, she's ready to ditch him for Harry. Her lawyer advises her to make copies of all her husband's financial records, so she copies his computer files to a disk.
Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, Linda Litzke (Coen frequent flier Frances McDormand) is desperately seeking love on the internet, and she's obsessed with having multiple plastic surgeries to reinvent herself. Like so many older women in our youth-obsessed culture, Linda's convinced herself that her tragically flawed love life is something that can be fixed with a nip here and a tuck there. Her manager, kind-hearted, bumbling Ted (Richard Jenkins) pines for Linda from afar, while Linda, relentlessly self-immersed in her quest for medical science to heal flaws that don't really exist, while ignoring those that do, fails to see the love that's right in front of her.
Linda's desire for superficial self-improvement escalates to obsession when her company's HMO refuses to pay for her surgery. When the CD containing all the files of former CIA agent Cox falls into the hands of Linda and her chipper, can-do coworker Chad (Brad Pitt), Linda enlists Chad's help in a quest to blackmail Cox for "reward" money, thereby securing the needed funds.
The Coens intertwine all these separate lives into one piece of storytelling that's quickly paced, twisted and often laugh-out-loud funny. With their deft understanding of human nature, the Coens create characters who tread close to being caricatures with enough humanity to keep them grounded in reality. We can see bits of ourselves in each of them, and this has the effect of making us laugh at the people in the story we're watching, while perhaps uncomfortably wondering if we're laughing a bit at ourselves as well.
Perhaps in part because the script for Burn After Reading was written specifically for the actors the Coens wanted to work with, the performances are all top-notch. Malkovich, working for the first time with the Coens, brings a manically funny vibe to his ex-CIA guy on the verge of unraveling, while Swinton, as his bitter wife who's disappointed in him, her life, and perhaps most of all herself, is all razor edges and sharp corners, while underscoring Katie with a wry humor that lets us peek at the sadness and desperation beneath the angry surface.
The Coens once again have written Clooney a role as vapid, addle-brained everyguy. Harry has so few original thoughts in his head that he keeps recycling the same lines and stories over and over again with every woman he meets; hey, it works, Harry seems to think, so why reach beyond what you know? But for all his bravado about being a federal marshal with killer instincts, when he's faced with realities that don't fit his carefully constructed script, he falls apart; Clooney's scenes in the latter half are some of the best in the film.
McDormand, of course, had her first role with the Coens in their first film, Blood Simple, and they keep casting her in their films for a simple reason: she's just a fantastic actress. She imbues this role with so much that's true about people searching desperately for that one thing that will make everything better; when Linda's browsing internet dating ads, she methodically ticks men off as losers while never looking beyond her own sags and bags to address the real baggage that's keeping her from genuine happiness.
As for Pitt, this is his first time working with the Coens after years of wanting to be in one of their films, and this role's brought out the dorky little kid in him in a delightful way. He plays Chad as an effusive man-boy, whose entire life up to until the intrigue takes place has revolved around working out, biking, hydrating with bottled water and Gatorade, and bopping around to his iPod. There are countless Chads biking around the streets of L.A., New York, Seattle, and all points in between, blissfully unaware of their lack of self-awareness. Pitt lends Chad's vapid distraction an air of purity and innocence that nicely foils Linda's obsessiveness. He's like an obedient Golden Retriever puppy following her around and eagerly fetching the bones she tosses, and he's funnier than we've ever seen him.
I expect critics who favor the Coens when they're working in the realm of the heavily artsy, ala No Country for Old Men, will like Burn After Reading, but it won't be their favorite Coen film. For me, I would rank it up there with my two favorite Coen films, Fargo and O, Brother Where Art Thou?. Burn After Reading is a sharply written film that revolves around intrigues and deceptions, where most of the darkly comedic moments happen when a character's flaws collide with reality; most of all, its a fun ride down the roller coaster of the dark side of human nature as only the Coens can explore it.