Lowdown: A multitude of contemporary adults do lots of stupid things in Washington DC.
Generally speaking, I like what the Coen brothers have been cooking for us over the years. They got their Oscars for No Country for Old Men, but it’s the Big Lebowskis, the Fargos, and the Oh Brothers for which I really like them most. Burn After Reading is more like the latter in style, yet it also way below them in quality.
As per the Big Lebowski standard, Burn After Reading follows a multitude of seemingly serious but actually very silly characters doing lots of silly things and getting burnt for it; some seriously and some less so. So what characters do we have ourselves here?
First we have John Malkovich playing a CIA agent who resigns after being demoted and decides to focus on writing his agency memoirs. Second we have his doctor wife, Tilda Swinton, who is as sympathetic as a concrete wall, disloyal to her husband, and generally incapable of withstanding an unemployed husband at home. Third we have George Clooney, a Coen regular, portraying a government security agent that never had to touch his gun throughout his career and likes to betray his wife, a children book author, with Swinton or anyone else he can bump into. Then we have Frances McDormand, a fitness club employee, who is absolutely sure the answer to all of her problems on this earth, including the lack of a partner, could be solved by a series of plastic surgeries. And to conclude this overview, we have Brad Pitt, a dumb fitness trainer in McDormand’s gym, who acts as her accomplice. So yes, it does take a while to get to know your characters in Burn Before Reading.
It takes even longer to figure out what the film is about. It’s all set in contemporary Washington DC, for a start. Without disclosing too much, I will say the wheels start rolling when Malkovich’s memoirs fall into the hands of Pitt, who then conspires with McDormand to extort money in order to pay for the latter’s coveted surgeries. Sound silly? Sure as hell. The funny thing about it all is that for a 90 minutes long film it took me more than half the film’s length to start understanding what was going on and where this whole charade of silliness is going to.
The answer, I’m afraid, is that it’s not really going anywhere. Burn After Reading is a film that is aimed at putting seemingly serious people portrayed by A class film stars in silly circumstances due to their sheer silliness. That is all there is to it! Sure, it’s entertaining, once you realize this is what this affair is all about, but you can also rest assured Burn After Reading will not take you to new cinematic heights.
Best scene: JK Simmons as a CIA head honcho portrayed in typical JK Simmons style supplies the best jokes by trying to figure out what is going on and sort the mess out through unassuming descriptions he gets from an employee of his.
Technical assessment: This is one of those Blu-rays where you can’t really tell the difference from a DVD. The picture is nothing special, certainly not in its level of detail, and the sound is pretty much center channel centered with the exception of the soundtrack that dares going where no sound effect had gone before (but does so almost reluctantly). For the record, Burn After Reading does feature a nice soundtrack.
Overall: A somewhat funny exercise in being amusing for the sake of being amusing that just, but just, manages to scrape 3 out of 5 stars.