The only thing wrong with “Burn AfterReading,” the latest flight of fancy from Joel and Ethan Coen, is that it ends. The appearance of the closing credits on the screen drew a little yelp of dismay from this viewer – not because the ending was particularly jarring, as in the Coen brothers’ recent Best Picture Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men,” but rather because the farcical world they create here is so funny and appealing that it’s sad to see it end after only 96 minutes. The film is an odd, crisply paced, unpredictable, highly original triumph.
It takes a little while to find its groove, but it’s worth the wait. As the curtain opens – or rather, as the camera, giving us a shuttle-eye view of Earth, whisks down to a close-up of Washington, D.C. – we meet Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA agent being demoted because of his drinking problem. In a huff, he quits his job, much to the dismay of his caustic wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is involved in a joyless affair with a Treasury agent (George Clooney).
Katie begins plotting a divorce and copying financial files from her husband’s computer; when she accidentally copies some classified information and the disk is misplaced in the women’s locker room of a local Hardbodies gym, the plot thickens. Actually, that’s the understatement of the year – this plot makes the most convoluted “Seinfeld” episode look like child’s play.
The farce truly enters its nutty stratosphere when we meet the screwy Hardbodies employees: Linda (Frances McDormand), whose character is obsessed with getting plastic surgery so she can find a man, and the airheaded Chad (Brad Pitt). When they find the CIA disk and decide it’s their chance to get rich quick, whether by blackmailing Cox or selling secrets to Russian bureaucrats, they stir up consequences both hilarious and disastrous.
Throughout, the writer-directors’ creative genius inspires a cast of greats, including several Coen favorites. Clooney once again proves he mostly acts in one of two registers – super-smooth or annoyingly twitchy – but his character is memorable, especially when he builds a gift for his wife that you’ll have to see to believe. McDormand, the wife of Joel Coen, and Malkovich are both at their best. It’s pure fun to watch Pitt, who has done his best to avoid playing vacuous pretty boys, chew up the scenery as a real moron. And wonderful character actor Richard Jenkins, as the Hardbodies supervisor who is secretly in love with Linda and watches her covert activities with growing alarm, adds a note of real poignancy to this theater of the absurd.
As the camera pulls back out at the end of the story, the message is that these small, strange tales might be taking place anywhere in the world, at any time. Let’s hope the brothers Coen are around for many years more, to continue to guide us through as much insanity as possible.