The new Coen Brothers flick, Burn After Reading, is essentially a spy movie about a group of people who have seen way too many spy movies. The film marks a return to comedy, specifically of the screwball variety, for the Coen Brothers, fresh off their three Oscars for No Country for Old Men.
Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand star as Chad and Linda, two hapless DC-area gym employees who discover a disc containing the memoir of alcoholic former CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). Linda sees the disc as an opportunity to elicit money from Cox to pay for cosmetic surgery. When Cox refuses to pay up, Chad and Linda offer the classified information to the most dangerous group of people in the eyes of anyone who has seen a spy movie in the past 50 years: the Russians.
What the Coens do best is take the clichés of the genre and turn them on their head. The outsiders to the world of intelligence, Chad and Linda, speak in cheesy spy talk like, “Is this a secure line?” and “The fish has bitten,” leaving those within the world of spies and information utterly confused.
The characters have their own real problems too, which make the characters much more than caricatures. Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton), is having an affair with Swinton’s Michael Clayton co-star, George Clooney — er, Harry Pfarrer. This gap between perception of the intelligence community and the reality of it creates most of the humor in the film and most of the trouble for Chad and Linda.
The Coens slip very comfortably back into the comedy arena. The script is smart though some of the characters are the dumbest people on film from the past few years (a feat with flicks like Disaster Movie out there). McDormand and the underrated Pitt are the real winners in the film, though, as both paint portraits of lovable losers getting through their mess the best way they know how.
The film gets funnier as it goes on, and with a slim running time of 96 minutes, the first 10 minutes are too slow for viewers with shorter attention spans. However, it ends strong, culminating in a scene between J.K. Simmons (most recently of Juno) and David Rasche, as two CIA officers summarizing the chaotic and hilariously tragic climax.
Quick Dish: With all-around good performances and a smart script, Burn After Reading will satisfy fans of the Coen brothers who were craving their return to comedy.