Burn After Reading, 2008
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Always zigging just when you think they're going to zag, the Coen brothers follow up their brilliant minimalist crime drama No Country For Old Men with a zany spy comedy that doesn't add up to much... but then, it's not really trying to.
Summarizing the plot is pretty much impossible. There's an intelligence analyst (John Malkovich) who is fired in the opening scene of the movie for problems with alcohol and who may or may not have mislaid a CD with what may or may not have been "secret spy shit." The CD is discovered at a cookie-cutter gym called Hardbodies by some of the employees, two of whom attempt to get a "reward" for returning it back to its rightful owner. It probably tells you enough about these characters that they are played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, the latter of whom is at his most insanely moronic. And there's a philandering Federal Marshall played by George Clooney who seems to have dreams of a very different career and who sublimates that into a series of meaningless affairs with women on the internet.
I could lie to you and pretend that the whole thing makes some sort of cohesive sense in the end, but that would be foolish -- the Coens have gone to a lot of time and effort to keep this stuff firmly in the "shaggy dog" territority, and who am I to argue? These characters (and many more) rotate through a series of set pieces that for the most part feel like random bits and pieces that the Coens couldn't quite fit into a larger screenplay, but mostly work anyway. The plot's not the point, here, instead we're supposed to appreciate the madcap hilarity of the individual pieces and the willingness to "go there" exhibited by these performers.
Some of the moments in the film are indisputably hilarious (my favorite being an exchange between Clooney and McDormand in a basement) and some of the performances are inspired (Pitt does what may be the best work of his career here and nearly convinces me that he's not one of the most attractive men in the Western world), but just as often the film seems to think it's a lot funnier and more clever than it really is. It may seem churlish to complain that some of the subplots go basically nowhere (that is, after all, the point) but 90 minutes with these characters was more than enough for me, and I found myself struggling to remember the beginning of the film at the end. Personally, I'd love to see a whole movie about the Malkovich character, probably the only one of the main cast with intelligence to burn, and a couple of cutaways to J. K. Simmons' intelligence man are classic comedy that seem somehow better than the movie they're in.
Burn After Reading is somewhat polarizing. I don't think it's a bad film necessarily, but it's a bit of an unsatisfying one. It's an amusing ride while it lasts and it's hard not to admire the artistry with which it was constructed, but a day later I find myself wishing the film had had a bit more meat on the bones. The high points are really, really good, but they're a bit too few and far between for this to really make the top ranks of Coen Brothers films, even Coen Brothers comedies.