I’ll start by making the following perfectly clear: I do not recommend Burn After Reading. I found it hilarious practically from start to finish but I’m pretty sure that a lot of people will flat out hate it and, if you’re one of them, I don’t want you to pin it on me.
Of course, if you’re American, it’s done and dusted. In Australia, the fun is only beginning. My audience laughed a lot, and it was a pretty much sold out advance screening (seat E3, baby): but at the same time as the laughter was happening, some were heard to say “this is ridiculous!” And it is. It really is.
CIA Analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job over a demotion for his alleged “drinking problem” (“You’re a Mormon! By comparison everyone has a drinking problem!”) and decides to write his “memoirs”. Meanwhile his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), has been conducting an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and wants to divorce Cox, so her solicitors suggest that she collects his financial details …
There’s not much point explaining the story, suffice it to say: Cox’s info falls into the hands of gym staffers Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand), and they want to be rewarded for its return. Cox has other plans. Everyone has multiple plans. Very few of them achieve fruition without hitch.
Burn After Reading takes a bit of time to pick up steam; in its early days, apart from Cox being a foul mouthed and bad tempered fellow, everyone is very WASPish and refined. It’s not really until the gym staff are introduced that the movie becomes something not quite right in the best possible way: the film becomes irrevocably unhinged and is all the better for that. The word that I find best to describe the story, the characters and everything that they do and say is simply “stupid”. This is not an insult in any form: it’s the third in the Coen Brothers’ “trilogy of idiots” starring George Clooney. It’s a movie of surfaces: no one in this movie has any depth (“they all seem to be sleeping with each other”), no one is particularly likeable, and certainly no one takes the most sensible or even obvious course of action given any circumstance they find themselves in. The level of incredulity that the film exhibits becomes brazen to the point that I had difficulty stopping my laughter – not that I wanted to at any point.
Part of the film’s appeal is external: something that I had read about the film is that it has lead to a spike in sales for the two sex toys featured in the film. One of them, the Liberator Ramp, is neither named nor used in the film, but Clooney’s character carries it around a couple of times. The fact that I knew of its existence and functioned heightened those scenes for me, particularly given the absurd nature of the product’s promotion (that link there is safe, but it’s still a “sex furniture” website). It’s attention to detail that makes the movie as much as any of the obvious and deliberately overblown major elements.
Burn After Reading is also one of those unique movies in which nothing is expected; it’s impossible to guess what is going to come next, and so the exercise is naturally dismissed as pointless. I can understand why people would absolutely hate it; it conforms to no expectations, it’s sex-oriented but never sexy, and some of it actually made the audience gasp. To a certain mind, however, it’s unrelentingly funny with excellent performances from all around – and it’s nigh on impossible to gaze upon Brad Pitt in this role without laughing.
This is a bizarre cup of tea, for sure, and certainly a confusing follow up to No Country For Old Men, but heck: sit by the fire, drink it down, and labour a metaphor. You owe it to yourself.