Tilda Swinton is back with Clooney after doing Michael Clayton together. J ohn Malkovich is in because he can evoke the ideal brand of loopy Coen Brothers confusion, and Frances McDormand because she's the female face of their movies.
This results in a sort of inside-politics joke in which a bunch of people are either spying on everyone else or having affairs with them. It's all fun and games until someone gets a hatchet thrown to his head. Then it's Coen Brothers fun.
Burn After Reading is Coen Lite, a comedown from last year's No Country For Old Men, but connected to it in a way. The plot gets under way when Linda Litzke (McDormand), a health-club employee, decides that she needs cosmetic surgery to get by in life and to feel better and it's not covered by the employee health plan. Linda needs money, because this is no country for old women, either.
The ex-CIA man is Osborne Cox ( Malkovich), can be a precise and affected actor, and his performance sits, as it should, slightly outside the mainstream of the plot. The actor enunciates with a nasal rudeness, putting him at odds with the earthiness of his sexual rival, Harry ( Clooney), a federal marshal who surfs the Internet for dates despite the fact he's married, and also despite the fact he's having an affair with Katie ( Swinton), who's married to Cox who despises him.
Katie seems to despise everyone: Swinton calls on her ice-maiden haughtiness for the role, while Clooney—robbed of the swanky smoothness he brings to most of his comic parts—cseems a bit lost to merely go along with the high-spirited roundelay of adultery, blackmail, and general corruption.
Everyone is either following someone or being followed or, in extreme cases, both—a paranoid atmosphere the Coens play for giggles at the start of the film, with a grimmer, bloodier humour by the end. When the Coens get into caper mode, they love spinning things out of control.
The audience watches the misunderstandings from the outside while the people living within a world that's watchful anyway— Burn After Reading has been labeled the Coens' Washington, D.C., melodrama, are never sure who is spying on them as they're busy spying on someone else.
This isn't quite as much fun as everyone involved in the movie appears to think, but the Coens have a few tricks up their sleeves, and after an hour or so, enlivened by Malkovich's arrhythmic anger and Pitt's wide-eyed naivety— Burn Before Reading becomes a sort of tribute to the great art of the coverup.
No one comes across too well, but by the end, you come to appreciate the philosophy of sweeping everything under the carpet, ignoring it, and pretending it didn't happen. It's a brave message for a movie that has a little point, but that's the Coens for you—always trying something old.