This good but not great Coen Brothers outing has been underrated by many in the wake of their Oscar-winning No County for Old Men, but diehard fans of the Coens will probably enjoy this non-flashy dramedy, as the brothers serve up yet another tale of lunk-headed ordinary joes who turn to petty crime in order to score some easy money, with catastrophic results.
This time the story is set in Washington, D.C. (which I always appreciate; it's an iconic town filled with great locations, but is under-served by the filmmaking community), where an ousted CIA analyst (John Malkovich) bitterly writes his tell-all memoirs about the agency, only to have them unwittingly copied onto a CD-ROM with his financial records, thanks to his ready-for-divorce wife (Tilda Swinton).
The disc is accidentally left at a local gym called Hardbodies, where two employees, played by the wonderfully dimwitted team of Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, believe they've stumbled upon major state secrets and hope to sell the disc to pay for McDormand's upcoming cosmetic surgery. Throw in George Clooney as a leering US Marshall sleeping with Swinton, as well a few major surprises, and you've got the stuff of great farce.
Except that Burn After Reading is not really funny. But then, I don't think it's even trying to be. Pitt and McDormand are brilliant – Pitt's character suggests what Pitt's actual life might be like today if he'd never become a star – and Clooney playfully lampoons his own political thriller roles, but I get a sense that the Coens find Capitol life lonely and depressing, and there is little joy to be found in this outing.
All the same, I liked the film; I admired its look (longtime Coen Bros. DP Roger Deakins has been replaced by Emmanuel Lubezki, and as a result the cinematography has a sleeker, less saturated style) and I found the story very engaging. Few will consider it a classic, but it's far better than the wretched Intolerable Cruelty, if nowhere in the same league as Fargo.