One gets the sense that Joel and Ethan Coen tried as hard as they could to steer clear of writing or adapting anything that had the faintest whiff of “Fargo” to it, and that’s understandable. After all, we are a here-today-gone-yesterday society when it comes to entertainment, and despite the Coens’ near-immaculate track record before the breakout success of “Fargo,” had they done another similarly-themed project shortly afterward, they would risk getting moved to the One Trick Pony column. Again, the facts clearly state that they are anything but a one-trick pony, but ask any agent and they’ll tell you: facts have nothing on perception.
Thank goodness, then, that the statute of limitations on re-entering “Fargo” appears to have expired, because no one does bumbling criminals better than the Coens. (See this year’s “Married Life” for an example of how not to do bumbling criminals. Or better yet, don’t see it.) “Burn After Reading” takes the hare-brained scheming of Jerry Lundegaard and adds one dose of government conspiracy and a whole lot of infidelity to the mix. It’s equally ridiculous and real, funny and sad.
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst whose drinking leads to a humiliating demotion, and Ozzie quits rather than accept the new position. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with paranoid Treasury employee Harry (George Clooney), and plans to divorce Ozzie. Harry is married too, though he’s reluctant to lower the boom on his unsuspecting wife. Katie’s divorce attorney suggests that she plunge into Ozzie’s financial records, so Katie burns a bunch of financial data from Ozzie’s computer onto a CD, along with the notes for the tell-all memoir he plans to write. The CD is later found in the locker room of a nearby gym, where employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) hatch the brilliant plan to return the CD in hopes of a reward. The reward accidentally turns into a blackmail scheme, and Ozzie is having none of it. In order to raise the stakes, Chad and Linda contact the Russian embassy, to see if they would pay for the data on the CD, unaware that they have gone from engaging in blackmail to committing treason.
First off, Carter Burwell gets huge props for his fantastic score. The Coens went minimalist on “No Country for Old Men” – the score didn’t kick in until the credits – but Burwell’s work here is relentless and deathly serious, something worthy of “In the Line of Fire.” Its genius is in the paradox; as we match Linda, Chad, Ozzie and Harry make one stupid decision after another, the music ramps up the tension as if the fate of the Western world hangs in the balance. Very clever.
Malkovich has the money part here. His Ozzie can barely finish a sentence without throwing at least one ‘fuck’ in it, and his exchanges with the dim-witted Pitt (whose word of choice is ‘shit’) are priceless. McDormand’s Linda is a strange little bird; her life is full of bad decisions because she’s too busy talking to allow anyone else to knock some sense into her. In the hands of a lesser actress, she would be insufferable, but McDormand makes her more difficult and sad than obnoxious. Pitt is a little too good at playing dumb, but while we’re talking about typecasting, Tilda Swinton plays the stone-cold bitch like no other. She is pitch-perfect for the role of Katie, and in fact might be too good at it. By the time the movie ends, one wonders what Ozzie and Harry ever saw in her in the first place.
Much like “No Country,” the ending of “Burn After Reading” is a tad off. You get the sense that the Coens actually had the characters spinning even more wildly out of control, but instead brought in J.K. Simmons’ CIA character (Simmons makes everything better) to tie everything together with a neat little bow. Still, this is one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination, and “Burn After Reading” is one loopy journey.(4 / 5)