Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Burn After Reading


You could call this the Coen Brother’s take on the spy thriller genre, but you’d be stretching a point. It has a few spies in it, and the chief thing that distinguishes them from the civilians is that they are not quite as dumb. But it’s a close call, especially the Department Head played wonderfully by J.K. Simmons, who never quite understands what’s going on out there in the real world, but just wishes it would stop. John Malkovich gets canned from his analyst job at the CIA, while his wife Tilda Swinton is planning to divorce him. Hunting for financial information, she inadvertently downloads the book he is writing, and it inadvertently gets left at a gym where Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt work. Frances desperately needs four plastic surgeries for her total makeover, and Brad—channeling his inner knucklehead, as one of the Coens puts it in a DVD extra, and doing a swell job of it—is willing to go along with a harebrained scheme to blackmail Malkovich, and when that fails, sell it to the Russians. Meanwhile, Tilda is having an affair with George Clooney, who says he wants to divorce his wife—yeah, right, you know this cowardly dork will never do it—and in a stunning coincidence, he’s having a fling with Frances.

It’s all very funny, very sly, and as so often in Coen movies, hardly anybody does anything very smart. They are all more or less average people in way over their heads. Not a James Bond or a Jason Bourne anywhere in sight. It is unexpectedly violent here and there, including one scene so startling we had to back up the DVD and watch it again to be sure just what happened, but it’s really all played for laughs, and it all worked for me. Great acting, great writing, unconventional story, but not really top-notch Coen.