Burn After Reading

george-clooneyBurn After Reading is another screwball comedy from the Coen Brothers, which takes a bunch of Hollywood A-listers and lets them play the fool in the world of political espionage. This is a parody of the classic spy thriller, where nothing is at stake, caution is thrown to the wind and chaos reigns supreme.

The whole film hinges around a lost disc containing the memoirs of Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), recently sacked from the CIA following a drink problem, which falls into the hands of two gormless gym employees, middle-aged plastic-surgery junkie Linda (Frances McDormand) and easygoing airhead Chad (Brad Pitt).

Assuming the disc contains highly classified information, Linda offers to return the memoirs to Osborne in return for cash (“We’ve got your secret shit!”) – an offer that he point blank rejects. Keen to raise funds for Linda’s planned plastic surgery, the two decide to take their ‘findings’ to the Russian embassy, hoping for a swifter payoff. Set against this is the story of Harry (George Clooney), a womanising treasury official who, as well as being married, is dating both Linda and Cox’s icy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton).

And so it goes on. Everyone is cheating, plotting and forming the most unlikely alliance. But in spite of its numerous twists and turns, the plot is easy to follow and feels less convoluted than those of the Coen brothers’ previous intricate farces, such as Fargo and The Big Lebowski.

Burn After Reading is cheerfully anarchic in its portrayal of self-obsessed, bird-brained gym instructors who lie through their teeth, spend most of their office hours on dating websites and will go to moronic lengths for a tummy-tuck. Humour springs from awkward situations, and the forgivable pomp and self-importance of the main protagonists. Linda and her sidekick may be dopey and naive, but their confident air leads to a profusion of misunderstandings. Even Clooney’s blasé philanderer belies an under-confidence that quickly turns into paranoia.

The CIA is also portrayed as hopelessly incompetent and indifferent, its officials more concerned with getting a little peace and quiet than protecting national security. No-one can work out why a couple of gym employees are trying to sell a collection of fustian ramblings to the Russians, why one of its agents would axe an unidentified man to death in the middle of the street, or why a middle-aged singleton would approach the Agency for cosmetic surgery. Not that the CIA boss (J. K. Simmons in fantastic form) considers these events worth investigating. “Report back to me when . . . oh, I don’t know . . . when it makes sense” he tells one of his underlings in a line that pretty well summarises the whole film.

Malkovich is in his element as the highfalutin, bow-tie wearing misanthrope who spends his days composing flowery tirades which are as Shakespeare to him, and hollow dross to everyone else. Tilda Swinton, playing his onscreen wife is as icy here as her White Witch in Narnia, but there is something disconcertingly humourless about her performance. Frances McDormand is adorable as the dappy Linda, whose limited intellect does nothing to diminish her determination.

Burn After Reading feels so effortless, it could have been written on the back of an envelope while waiting for a bus. Its mix of farce, suspense and general goofiness will be familiar terrain for Coen fans, but its humour lies well within the Hollywood mainstream. That said, the story can hardly be described as predictable, and the razor sharp dialogue will have you in stitches.

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