A disgruntled intelligence analyst named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) sets the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading into motion. At first, the film plays exactly like a glossy, A-list spy thriller, with thudding, sinister music on the soundtrack and shadowy figures tailing the characters. A mundane activity like buying hardware supplies becomes a study in paranoia and menace. If Burn After Reading were based on an actual Robert Ludlum espionage novel, it would have a name like The Cox Supremacy.
Instead, Burn After Reading turns out to be one of the Coen brothers' trademark comedies of cause and effect, with clueless characters responsible for events that unleash ridiculous chaos. Writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen clearly enjoy blowing off steam following the powerful austerity of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, and turn the tropes of cloak-and-dagger films into frantic, at times violent, farce.
Burn After Reading dissects two social strata of Washington, D.C. At the top are the bureaucrats and government officials such as Cox and Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Pfarrer and Cox's wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), are having an affair, but Cox, having quit his agency, instead focuses on settling scores by writing a memoir (which Malkovich pronounces "mem-wah" with amusing fussiness).
A gym franchise called Hardbodies represents the lower, service-oriented pecking order. Employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), despite being in fine shape for her age, obsesses that her body isn't hard enough for her to find true love and needs cash to bankroll a series of plastic surgeries. When the gym employees discover a disc containing cryptic data and Cox's name, Linda and a lunkheaded trainer named Chad (Brad Pitt) become blackmailers, sort of accidentally on purpose. Chad's fumbling lack of coolness seems to liberate Pitt, who gives his funniest performance since his cameo in True Romance, especially when Chad tries to pass as a man of mystery.
Clooney makes Pfarrer similarly inept at playacting. Pfarrer presents himself as a tough, self-effacing badass, almost like a failed George Clooney impression. He invariably betrays himself by fretting over exercise and his food allergies: "Does this have shellfood in it?"
When Swinton's hilariously severe Katie contemplates divorce, her lawyer warns her that Cox, as a former member of the intelligence community, is practiced at deception. The irony of Burn After Reading is that civilians engage in subterfuge with more passion, but no more success, than the so-called professionals. In an environment of computer dating, online bank transactions and rampant infidelity, practically everyone's a spy already. McDormand overplays Linda's wide-eyed idiocy and lack of self-reflection, but ultimately finds some depth to the role. Linda's attempts to reinvent herself work better than she suspects, but with self-defeating results.
Audiences can rely on the Coen brothers for snappy acting, hilarious dialogue and off-putting amounts of bloodshed, and Burn After Reading is no exception. The film also showcases the filmmakers' adoration for anticlimaxes. The days when a villain would explode in a fireball like Raising Arizona's biker from hell are long gone. No Country for Old Men avoided a final showdown. The Big Lebowski opted for an ineffectual funeral over the bowling playoffs. McDormand's pregnant police officer didn't give birth at the end of Fargo.
Instead of valuing the bleak codas of 1970s cinema, the Coens tend to end their films neither with a bang nor a whimper, but something approaching a shrug. They superbly set up expectations but withhold a Hollywood climax, or even a conventional idea of closure. The inconclusive approach perfectly suits the blank, amoral landscapes of Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Burn After Reading's lack of a satisfying ending feels more evasive, like an unnecessary attempt to tack a serious theme onto 90 minutes of dumb, selfish behavior. The film ends like those secret instructions from "Mission Impossible": This message will self-destruct in five seconds.