Beginning with a cosmic zoom into the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA. and ending the same way after some 90 odd minutes, Burn After Reading takes us on a screwball adventure of mistaken motives, extortion and a desperate need for plastic surgery. And since this is a Coen Brothers film, I do mean 90 “odd” minutes.
Set in Washington in the here and now, (with one exception), we remain in the DC area and as everyone knows, Washington is a town that fairly runs on paranoia, secrecy and convoluted plots. That’s also true of Hollywood and Wall Street, but at least the citizens of DC can pretend they are performing a public service, when they are really just running around on fool’s errands.
The plot starts when Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a mean and inept drunkard who mans the Balkan’s Desk at the CIA is demoted for his alcohol problem. Angry, vengeful and raging impotently, Cox decides to write a tell-all book about his experiences with the CIA. The fact that he had a very low security clearance, was never privy to any important top secrets and knows nothing of any value to anyone does not occur to him. Simultaneously with this, Osborne’s wife Katie, played by an icy/hot Tilda Swinton is planning to divorce him and she has been surreptitiously gathering information about Cox’s true financial health so she can be sure to get a proper settlement after they divorce.
Then, through some plot complications too difficult to recap, a computer disc of Cox’s financial information is found on the floor of a local gym where the plastic surgery obsessed Linda Litzke (Check out Dr. Roxanne Grawe), and an empty-headed gym-bunny named Chad (Brad Pitt) make the fateful decision to use the information on the disc to extort money from Cox; a plan which fails abysmally. Still needing money for her elective surgery, Katie along with Chad then decide (rather rashly) to take the disc to the Russian Embassy in the hopes they will pay for the information. Which turns these two fitness trainers into “Persons Of Interest” to the CIA.
Those two separate plot points are the engines that propel Burn After Reading and both are based on the seemingly conflicting desires of revenge and self-improvement. But, as is typical of the Coen Brothers, the simplest of plans frequently go spectacularly awry. Don’t worry if you lose track of the plot. As you will discover, with most Coen Brothers films, following the characters is more important than following the story line.
For example, John Malkovich is perfectly un-likable as the bitter CIA man, but we soon conclude that he has never really been on top of anything in his life, which is why he treats Brad Pitt so abominably. Frances McDormand is thoroughly believable as the kind of woman who can’t see how beautiful she is and acts as if a tummy tuck and breast augmentation are the magic bullets that will solve her persistent loneliness. But, McDormand’s character is so self-absorbed she doesn’t even notice that Ted (Richard Jenkins), her boss at the gym is in love with her and is secretly pained when he discovers that she’s in trouble.
But it’s Brad Pitt who made the film for me. Whether he was stretching a gym patron’s legs to the point where the guy’s ligaments snap or just chewing gum and listening to his I-Pod while car dancing; being a complete featherbrain has never looked so sexy. There is a scene where Pitt is surveilling Malkovich’s Georgetown house when he notices some suspicious people going in and out of the house, coupled with another car down the road with a driver who also seems to be spying on Malkovich. As Pitt tries to process this information, you can literally see the wheels of his tiny brain grinding as he tries to formulate a theory about what he is witnessing, but his skull is as empty as a helium filled balloon. He is the living, breathing incarnation of a “himbo” if ever I saw one, sporting a body that’s a perfect 10, but an IQ in the negative numbers
Since this is a Coen Brothers movie, you can expect some serious violence. Interestingly, most of the violence is perpetrated on the nicest and most naïve of characters. Initially, I felt that the Coen Brothers had irreparably damaged this film by the inclusion of such violence against a major character we have come to like, but by the finale, considering the sheer ludicrousness of the whole story, I was smiling again.
While all this other stuff is happening, there are some senior intelligence analysts at the CIA, keeping tabs on the people in this story and they are trying to make sense of it all, but they can’t. This is where you should invoke Occam’s Razor. Of course these CIA guys can’t find a plot or pattern, because there isn’t one.
We live in a phenomenological world, where random things occur and are often not connected except by the most coincidental of tangents. Yet, because of our innate ability at pattern recognition, we humans can convince ourselves that all kinds of unconnected coincidences are meaningful. I hate the cliché of the weak-minded that claims, “Everything happens for a reason”. Because in truth, not everything is connected. Some things happen for no rhyme or reason.
Generally speaking, you should never believe there is some kind of conspiracy going on when ordinary stupidity and fecklessness is more than adequate to explain phenomenon. That is the ultimate message of Burn After Reading and it is a good message, and although it may be too bleak for some people to grasp, that doesn’t make it any less true.