Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have such perversely dark sensibilities that it’s hard to grasp where the laughter ends and the gruesome reality begins. In such classics as Academy award-winning “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski” and “No Country for Old Men”, the Coens demonstrate that they love to tackle the wickedly absurd and the absurdly wicked human creatures that walk through life in a self-absorbed stupor.
“Burn after Reading” blends the dark layers of “Fargo” with the highly comedic stumbling and bumbling of “The Big Lebowski”, creating one of the funniest and most entertaining films of the last ten years.
When hard drinking CIA analyst, Oxborne Cox (John Malkovich), is informed he’s being taken off the Balkans desk, he launches into a tirade with more rage and profanity this side of a David Mamet play. Cox then storms out of the office, and decides to leave the CIA to write his memoirs.
Malkovich sinks into the character of Oxborne Cox with the energy of a caged animal. Cox is a Princeton man, walking about town in his bow tie and three-piece suit. Underneath all that, however, he’s a raging alcoholic ready to blow at any second, and maybe for good reason.
Cox’s wife, Katie, played by Tilda Swinton, is an uptight, cold individual who has very little sympathy for his problems at the CIA. Katie decides to divorce Cox, but first she attempts to steal his financial information off his computer for her lawyer. What she ends up with is a disk of his CIA memoirs.
The disk falls into the hands of Hard bodies Gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litske ( Francis Mcdormand) and they attempt to extort some cash out of Oxborne Cox. The notion that the information on the disk may be worthless is of little concern to these dimwitted fitness nuts. Add in a moronic Federal Marshall (George Clooney), who is sleeping with every female he can get his hands on–including Cox’s wife and Litske–and “Burn” turns into a hysterical and often times dark tale of deception, mistrust and utter confusion.
There is an attempt to make sense of the confusion by a CIA Superior (J.K. Simmons) and a CIA officer (David Rasche) who keep tabs on all this mess and act as a modern day Greek Chorus, with remarkable comic effect. When the officer tells his superior that one of the players in this farce is now dead and that he’ll inform the F.B.I. his only response is: “No, no. God no. Burn the body. Get rid of it”.
Brad Pitt, who’s a newcomer to the Coens’ world has proven before he can be a comedic actor with his performance in “The Mexican” and with his small but unforgettable performance in “True Romance”. As Chad Feldheimer he has most of the comic moments in the film which left the audience in almost tears.
Underneath all the laughter in “Burn after Reading” lies a theme of every man for himself and God against all. The level of deceit and backstabbing builds up to such a level that it’s hard to breath. Sure, this makes for good drama but it’s also a good commentary on the absurdity of life.