When the shit piles up, the secret intelligence men are there to do the cleaning, even if they’re unable to interpret the mess themselves, whether it’s important, or why the Russians are involved. Burn After Reading is marvelously crafted satire from the Coens that uses standard miscommunication comedy to mock the absurdity of trying to make sense of the senseless.
Intelligence analyst Ozzie Cox (John Malkovich) quits the CIA and decides to write his memoirs, which could be “quite explosive,” but his material, along with possibly other top secret “raw intelligence,” is found by stooges Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Francis McDormand) who use it to their best advantage. Meanwhile, Cox’s pissed off wife Katy (Tilda Swinton) is screwing someone else’s husband, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a dog that screws anything in a pair of heels, while Linda naively looks for love by screwing internet dateline losers. As Mr. Pfarrer finds out, the god of mischief ensures all this is closely surveilled by Ozzie’s former employers as they follow bogus leads to make mislead conclusions about mistaken identities.
Sounds maybe familiar, but the Coens execute the fine details of it with such precision it hardly matters, as subtext and suggestion build into explosive troughs and peaks of cynical, satirical hilarity. Somewhere in there is vague simile of agency and secret agents (on two separate occasions Linda innocuously but irritably screams “agent” at voice recognition machinery: mere cute wordplay?), the juxtaposition of intelligence and idiocy, positing that the real idiots are maybe higher up the chain of bureaucracy, and to top it all, taking the piss out of spy movies with “intricate” levels of miscommunication, misinformation, and misinterpretation of false signals.
The only thing Burn After Reading suffers from is lack of a singular vision: it’s about too many things, as themes are neatly set up and neatly paid off, but as artistic units, these themes are disconnected. In the end it has to cling on to this comedy of surveillance people happening upon a ball of shit rolled out of coincidental nonsense; but thanks to a stellar cast directed by great filmmakers we’re kept in tears of laughter all the way through. Amidst the shitstorm, Cox hardly gets a chance to finish his memoirs: the narrative is a cynical misaccount of his tragedy (the only character with a forward looking goal, his demise is a footnote). So what do we learn? “Jesus Fucking Christ.”