As the opening credits of Burn After Reading blip across a satellite image of Washington, DC, viewers may find themselves wondering if they've wandered into the wrong movie — a Bourne Identity type thriller filled with high-tech secrets and evil intentions. But for every spook with high-security clearance in DC, there is a goofball at Jamba Juice, waiting for his afternoon smoothie. And when that iPod-wearing dude wanders into the tropes of a spy movie, the results are wonderfully absurd and fraught with a different sort of intelligence.
The Coen brothers have given us stories of bumbling criminals time and time again, but with Burn After Reading, the filmmakers approach the familiar theme in an entirely fresh way. The "criminals" in this case are more accidental than bumbling, their deceptions adorably mundane against an ominous, thundering soundtrack and spy-camera cinematography. For all the details,
Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand play Chad and Linda, two gym employees who find a CD in the locker room that contains data belonging to a former CIA analyst. Assuming that someone will pay big bucks for the return of the sensitive info, they attempt, with childlike naivete, to blackmail the analyst, a Princeton man named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). But old Ozzy is far more concerned about his recent unemployment and impending divorce from his wife (Tilda Swinton), who's having an affair with a pinhead womanizer played by George Clooney.
When Cox doesn't bite on the blackmail, Chad and Linda attempt to sell the secrets to the Russians, inadvertently setting off a series of plot twists that entangle everyone and provide plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. At one point, a CIA boss (played by JK Simmons) is briefed on the case — and utterly baffled: "Just report back to me when — I don't know. When it makes sense."
The way the story unfolds makes perfect sense, and at the same time, it's entirely senseless. Like kids playing spy games, the characters talk like actors trying to up the drama while waiting for something to happen. But when things happen — and believe me, some serious stuff happens — it is simply real, without cinematic spectacle, and more powerful as a result. Where other filmmakers hold might back in the name of mystery or add a cheeky twist, the Coen brothers just give us mundane reality at its most absurd.
Photos Courtesy of Focus Features