Burn After Reading

by Rick Grant
Rated R
96 min
The Coen Brothers’ prime directive to the cast of Burn After Reading was, “Act like knuckleheads!” The cast was more than happy to oblige in this offbeat satire of everything doltish, which leads to hilarious misunderstandings and a spy caper so twisted, the CIA didn’t understand it.
Of course, the Coen Brothers’ fans know these mischievous brothers can turn actors into morons for laughs as in Oh Brother Where Art Thou.
In this scenario, a CIA analyst, Osborne Cox has been demoted for being an alcoholic. But he’s outraged and quits. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is a doctor and is having an affair with a serial philanderer, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). He is a treasury agent with remarkable amount of time on his hands to bed anything in a skirt and invent kinky devices for sexual pleasure.
When Cox retires he starts writing his memoirs using his experiences during the cold war (the good old days) as a guide. Meanwhile, his wife is secretly seeing a divorce lawyer who suggests that she download his financials from his computer onto a CD disc. After she does that, she takes the disc to her lawyer’s office and his secretary starts transcribing it. This disc is the catalyst for a complicated caper to evolve into chaos, which at every step is misinterpreted causing funny situations, as this confederacy of dunces screw up everything they touch.
Meanwhile, a gym worker, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is looking for love on the internet. But she is convinced that if she gets expensive plastic surgery-face-lift, liposuction, tummy tuck, et al-she will find a better class of men in cyberspace. Ah, but she doesn’t have the money. Not to worry, Linda is determined to find a way to finance her surgeries with the help of her wacked-out gym colleague, Chad, (Brad Pitt) a pretty boy who is blissfully looney.
When Katie’s divorce lawyer’s secretary leaves the disc that contains Cox’s financial statements at the gym, Chad thinks it may be sensitive information that someone would pay to get back. So, Chad and Linda decide to blackmail Cox for his disc. The bumbling duo blow the meeting with Cox, but Linda decides the Russians might be interested in the information on the disc. The dim-witted duo brazenly walk into the Russian Embassy to shop the disc. The Russians are mystified and call the CIA and that puts a tail on Linda and Chad to find out if these faux spies have any credibility.
The Russians find out the information on the disc is worthless and cut off contact with Linda and Chad. This sets off a sequence of bizarre events which have incredibly funny consequences for all the players in this idiot game of cat and mouse.
The CIA is portrayed as an investigative agency that is still playing by the cold war rules of engagement. Their convoluted assessment of Linda and Chad’s activities misses the truth and sets up a fictitious scenario that leads to guffaw producing events that only a gaggle of halfwits could instigate.
As the tangled web of misconceptions and random happenings comes unraveled, Harry’s date book is filled with the names of the players in this keystone cops adventure. Harry starts dating Linda and introduces her to his latest sex contraption. For unexplained reasons, Harry goes to Cox’s house where he finds Chad in a closet. It’s a strange encounter that leads to other even unexplained events.
Linda’s need to get plastic surgery has driven a sequence of events involving the CIA and the Russians, and made all the players extremely paranoid. The Coens created a funny and memorable group of characters that use their collective lamebrains as a shield from the realities of their actions, which gives the viewers continuous laughter for the 96 minutes running time.