DVD Release Date:  December 21, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  September 12, 2008
Rating:  R (for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence.)
Genre:  Comedy-Drama
Run Time:  96 min
Directors:  Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Cast:  George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

The Human Creature is a funny thing sometimes, especially when it unwittingly orchestrates its own destruction.  Temptation quickly leads to willful ignorance, willful ignorance inevitably leads to really stupid decisions, and on that fast slippery slope is where the Coen Brothers have found comedy throughout their career. 

It’s also where they’ve made their most pointed indictments about the human condition—greed especially—and Burn After Reading is another brilliant entry into their canon of dark morality tales.

This also marks the Coens’ most blatant attempt at parody as Burn After Reading is a send-up of modern Oscar-bait conspiracy thrillers like Michael Clayton and Syriana.  The fact that George Clooney (the star of both those films, and a Coen vet) is willing to mock the genre that gave him serious acting cred along with Oscar gold speaks well of his own ego (and lack thereof), and what makes him a perfect addition to this all-star ensemble.

After an opening credit sequence that feels pulled from the Bourne franchise, we’re introduced to CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) at the moment of his firing.  Driven by both bitterness and an over-inflated sense of self, Cox decides to dish details in a memoir (or, as he pretentiously pronounces it, “a mem-wah”).  This simple decision becomes the catalyst that brings various unrelated parties together in a high stakes game of international intrigue in which no one really knows what game’s being played, who’s playing it, or that the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they assume.

The players include Washington D.C. insiders like Osbourne, his uptight and domineering wife Katie (Tilda Swinton, also from Michael Clayton), and U.S. Federal Marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) who is, primarily, a serial philanderer.  Then there’s also Linda Litzke and Chad Feldheimer (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt), trainers at the Hardbodies Fitness Center who have stumbled upon a computer disc that apparently contains sensitive government secrets—a disc that leads back to Osbourne.  

What unfolds is far too complex to summarize here (though easy to follow)—but what makes the story fascinating isn’t just the complications themselves but rather the desperate acts that fuel them.  Whenever wisdom and restraint are called for, greed, vice and selfishness rule out.  Each character chooses to exploit situations for personal gain, going to illegal (and potentially deadly) lengths merely for the hope of a moderate pay off.  People get in over their heads, and the consequences they reap are more severe than they could’ve imagined.

A dark comedy that revels in everything the Coens do best, there are big laughs to be had as the entire cast embraces the absurdity of the material—Clooney and Pitt especially, who relish their roles (Pitt’s simpleminded trainer, for example, is always hydrating) and are clearly having a blast.  But Burn After Reading juxtaposes broad screwball strokes against a real, building tension and occasional bursts of graphic violence.  Deeper emotional moments also resonate, particularly as McDormand’s Linda struggles to fill an emotional/relational void through shallow outlets even as her boss (Richard Jenkins) quietly pines for her affection.