It is a suitably perverse twist that the only person who has the clearest idea of what’s she is doing in the Coen Brothers latest offering, BURN AFTER READING, is Linda Litzke, the inadvertent femme fatale of the piece played by the miraculous Frances McDormand. Not the CIA operatives, not the Treasury Department guy, not the Russian “cultural attaches”, not the doctor. No, it’s a gym employee with upper-arm and lower derriere issues who wants a little plastic surgery to assist her in her search for Mr. Right, and even she is missing a few points here and there. The Coen Brothers have mined that rich premise to make an impishly smart film about the stupidity rampant in people who think they are being clever, and they are clever enough themselves to accomplish it with little that could be considered hyperbole.
It begins innocently enough, sort of, when CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) quits in a huff after having his security clearance lowered. Miffed, and in deep trouble with his sleek and dour doctor-wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), he writes his memoirs, which eventually end up on the floor of the women’s locker room at the gym where Linda works. How they get there involves an extra-marital affair that Katie is having with Harry (George Clooney), a Treasury agent with a tendency to misspeak and an obsession with flooring. How they and everyone else become the object of CIA surveillance involves Linda’s inability to get her HMO to pay for her procedures. When Chad (Brad Pitt), one of the gym’s trainers whose effusively highlighted hair might be just a scooch smarter than he is, decides that the disk contains classified documents, Linda sets about trying to make the misidentified memoirs pay. Why she would listen to Chad is a testament to how badly she wants svelte arms and a higher butt. Why she hasn’t responded to Ted (Richard Jenkins), the gym manager who moons over her without being able to actually get her attention romantically speaks to the amazing ability we humans have to see what we expect to see. That’s also something that everyone else in the film does, too, but once the official government intelligence services get involved, their tunnel-vision expertise succeeds only in making everything even more muddled. Bad for the characters, sublime for the audience.
Nothing is sacred, nothing is safe, nothing is certain and it’s a rich panoply. People are paranoid, but about the wrong things. People aren’t paranoid, but should be. And the cold stuck-up bitches who think that everyone else is may be on to something. The cast, from those with names above the title to the smallest of bit parts, are dead on target, with special mention to Pitt, who, rather than fighting his pretty boy looks, has embraced the stereotype of the dumb and vacuous blonde by exploiting it with a glib giddiness. The humor is black, the tone is arch, and idea of an intelligence community unable to figure out what its own citizens are up to unsettling, but striking a resonant chord. As do the piquant jabs at voice mail mazes, the separation of classes in our “classless” society, and vaccine scars as the next putative flaw to fret over foisted upon a society obsessed with physical perfection.
BURN AFTER READING, however, is a thing of beauty. A traditional Hitchcockian tale of intrigue and innocence, turned on its ear. And then inside out. And then twisted in ways that might make even the dark master himself shake his head in wonder.