The Coen Brothers have made a lot of movies—just like Madonna has made a lot of albums. Burn After Reading is a light, wacky espionage spoof that’s fun to watch. It falls somewhere in the lower middle of their oeuvre—about where Hard Candy, another star-studded affair released the same year, falls for Madonna: good but not great, more fluffy than provocative, and interesting enough to pull out every now and then but certainly not the first thing I reach for when I’m in the mood for the artist.
The cast is stellar: Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt. The characters are amusing—everyone is, in a word, stupid. Malkovich as Osborne Cox is easily the standout: he’s an angry, misanthropic, drunk loose cannon. The plot, which involves a total misunderstanding about the contents of a CD left behind at a health club (Hardbodies), is typically intricate and well-executed Coen stuff. McDormand’s character, Linda—who she plays with a winning dippy positivism—has a hilariously brilliant motive: to extort money so she can buy the plastic surgery her insurance company won’t cover. Working Washington bigshots and Russian bad guys into the mix is a very nice touch.
All that said, Burn After Reading has its problems. The characters are cartoonish. The plot drags at points, especially the subplot with Clooney’s character, Harry, and his womanizing. The action chugs along and generates momentum, but somehow we don’t end up anywhere when all is said and done.
Burn After Reading isn’t perfect, but its highs overcome its flaws. It might rate higher in the hands of another team; but being the Coen Brothers, expectations are higher than average. That may not be fair to them, but it’s a fair statement nonetheless.