And I'm not exactly sure why "Burn After Reading" doesn't quite work. It has all of the requisite trademarks of a Coen Brothers comedy. A wacky story. Filled with zany people in a whirlwind of activity. And some brutal violence thrown in for shock value and good measure.
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst, learns he is about to be reassigned to another, less important post and quits. He will write his memoirs and shake the very foundation of the spy institution. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is not happy to hear the news and takes some time out from her affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a US Marshall, to consult a divorce lawyer. A disc both Osborne and Katie unknowingly use for their own motives gets lost at a local Hardbodies gym where personal trainers Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) find it. They decide they have some valuable secrets with which to blackmail the owner for its return. Linda is intent on getting some plastic surgery to improve her body and attract a single man, giving every possibility a try, despite the protestations of her boss, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), who has a crush on her. Chad is a dimbulb and Linda soon takes charge of the plan. While all of these people begin to swirl out of control, Harry decides to leave his wife, a successful children's book author and shack up with Katie. But Harry is a professional philanderer and he continues to look for people to cheat with and ends up meeting Linda.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, "Burn After Reading" has some funny laughs, but there are a lot of jokes that simply don't work and as the characters spiral out of control, their actions getting wilder and wilder, it almost appears as though they are having trouble keeping all of the various elements in control.
John Malkovich is at the center of this universe, bringing all of these characters together into the eye of the hurricane. Osborne Cox is upset to learn he is being let go, so he decides he will write his memoir. Jotting a few notes down one night, he wants the book to be a barnburner, a book that changes the way people think. But we begin to suspect Cox is, perhaps, not as important to the security of the nation as he would like to believe. When he announces to his wife that he is going to write a 'Tell all', sure to be a bestseller, she rolls her eyes because she knows that her husband doesn't realize the full truth.
Malkovich is very good as Osborne. Perhaps the role is so close to our perceived notion of what Malkovich is really like; Osborne is uptight (he wears bow ties) and incredulous about the stupidity of everyone else around him. He is also exasperated by the same people and has difficulty hiding his contempt. Malkovich does this type of role very well and could almost patent it like the Morgan Freeman Wise Sage™. It is almost like he is perfecting the 'slow burn', the type of role the straight man in a comedy team would perfect. Anytime the funny person does something bad, the straight man stares ahead, exasperated. Think Hardy to Laurel, Costello to Abbott, George Burns to Gracie Allen, and you get the idea. Basically, everyone else in the cast is 'the funny guy' and Malkovich's Cox is the straight guy. It's an amusing idea that really works. As Cox becomes more and more exasperated, more and more at loose ends, it is funny to watch him slowly self-destruct.
As Osborne struggles about how to find new meaning in his life, his wife immediately decides to start divorce proceedings. Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair, so she has to proceed quickly, and quietly, gathering facts and figures about their bank accounts, so her husband doesn't leave her behind. With every move, Swinton makes us aware of Katie's dislike of about everyone in her life. The fact Osborne's choice to quit his job prompts her to immediately begin divorce proceedings, in secret, tells us a lot about Katie's feelings towards everyone else in the world. She even seems to dislike Harry (Clooney), the man she is having an affair with. And this makes her character interesting, but it is easily the least funny of the group.
Clooney's Harry Pfarrer is a US Marshall and a chronic philanderer. But Clooney takes Harry's sex-crazed feelings to new heights and every time Harry reenters the story, he makes us laugh. Harry's invention is particularly memorable. But Harry is a supporting character and doesn't control the story. His actions affect others in the story, but because he only sporadically appears, he seems a bit superfluous.
This is, perhaps, the problem with the film. Because there are so many characters, played by so many very talented actors, we must shift our attention every few minutes to concentrate on a new grouping of these people. It is difficult to maintain any momentum when this happens and it becomes distracting.
A good case and point for this argument is the fact that we have talked about three strong characters and we still have to discuss the characters played by Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins.
Osborne's disk, with his notes, and Katie's financial records, is lost at the local Hardbodies gym, where Linda (McDormand), Chad (Pitt) and Ted (Jenkins) all work. Ted is the manager and has a crush on Linda, but doesn't know how to express these feelings. Instead, he stands by and watches her date meaningless guys she meets online and listens to her talk about all of the plastic surgery she wants to get, needs to get, to improve her body. She and Chad are buddies and when Chad learns about the disc, he immediately hatches a plan to blackmail Osborne for its return. But Linda and Chad aren't the smartest people and immediately bungle the process, further infuriating Osborne. They set their sites on other targets.
Frances McDormand is a pro at this type of screwball humor and doesn't miss a beat. As the wife of Joel Coen, she has appeared in a number of the brother's films and obviously gets what they are trying to do. Brad Pitt also seems to be enjoying himself immensely playing thick in the head Chad, a man who seems to spend the majority of his time as a personal trainer working out, even when he doesn't have a client. And Jenkins is very good as Ted, bringing a bittersweet note to the film, as he is unable to express his true feelings for Linda, and if he did, she might never have carried the plot to such extremes.
David Rasche and JK Simmons pop up in amusing cameos as CIA Officials tracking the progress of everyone else's shenanigans.
"Burn After Reading" is funny, but it isn't as funny as many other Coen Brothers' films. Part of the problem lies in the lack of focus given to so many characters. With this many people running around, we have to be able to drop in and out of their stories in an instant. Because the filmmakers seem less interested in some of the characters, they don't appear to devote as much time to all, and this gives the film a slightly 'off' feel.