In Burn after Reading (2008) bumbling people get involved in situations more complex and dangerous than they can imagine, yet even these situations are not that complicated, compared to others. One of the reasons this film met with lukewarm reviews, I think, was that it was difficult to pigeonhole. Following directly on the heels of No Country for Old Men, it might have led critics to expect some sort of follow-up at least in tone and subject. Instead the Coens give us comical, inept characters played by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand. On the surface, much of the film might seem like a comedy, yet it is hardly comedy. Burn after Reading is a tragedy masked as comedy. It's a movie about spies and the CIA that is in fact only indirectly about those subjects. It's a film in which horrible things happen to people too naïve and too dumb to merit their fates. It leaves us confused and uncertain how to react.
Frances McDormand plays a trainer in a physical fitness center obsessed with finding a life partner. She never says husband, but it's clear husband, or at least long-term partner, is what she wants. She believes that to make herself attractive to a man she needs extensive cosmetic surgery and much of her motivation in the film focuses on finding a way to fund the surgery. Brad Pitt plays a trainer in the same gym. He's wonderful at playing this character without much substance at all. When he discovers what he believes are secret documents lost by a C. I. A. agent, he and Frances decide to contact the owner and return them in hopes of a reward. Things develop from there.
It would be easy to discuss this film without any reference to spies and espionage. Two characters suffer failing marriages. George Clooney plays a Treasury Department agent who brags that although he carries a gun he's never had to shoot it, even though he's trained to shoot "without thinking." Clooney's character is obsessively dedicated to habit—in everything he does and says. He is vain, narcissistic, unscrupled, and wholly superficial. He is married to a successful children's book author but is constantly looking for ways to hook up with other women. He's building a most unusual present for his wife, whom he doesn't believe knows about his extramarital habits. John Malcovich plays the C. I. A. agent whose attempts to write a memoir are discovered in the gym by Brad Pitt. Malcovich doesn't leave them there—the secretary of the private detective hired by Malcovich's wife loses them—she's planning to divorce him. She's also sleeping with Clooney, who's also sleeping with McDormand.
Key scenes in the film occur on a tree-lined boulevard in Washington, D.C. This is where people go to meet the dates they have arranged via Internet social sites.
All the principal characters in Burn after Reading function in a state of relative ignorance and incompetence. They regard themselves as more savvy, more important, more significant than they really are. As they become increasingly caught in complicated entanglements, they never realize that they're in over their heads, until it is too late. Clooney's character has two such moments of realization. In one he discovers that the person who has been tracking him is a private detective hired by the lawyer whom his wife has employed to represent her in a divorce suit—he has no idea she plans to divorce him. In the second he realizes a connection between himself and a friend of Frances McDormand, with whom he is having an affair. The realization drives him batty—the paranoia he already seemed given to takes over, and he screams at McDormand "Who are you?" and runs in panic down the street away from her.
The most pathetic example of a person in over his head is the manager of the fitness center. He is a retired Greek Orthodox priest who is secretly in love with McDormand's character—she has no inkling of this fact and constantly confides in him about her desire to find the right man. The unrequited lover's attempt to aid McDormand goes fatally wrong.
Malcovich plays a C. I. A. operative with relatively low-level security clearance. His decision to write his memoirs, after being reassigned to a desk job for apparent alcoholism, is a sign of his own failure to recognize his unimportance. When a high-level C. I. A. supervisor learns that the memoir is being peddled to the Russians, he loses interest as soon as he learns Malcovich's security clearance level.
All the lead and secondary actors in this film are excellent, Pitt and Clooney in particular.
Rather than comedy or spy thriller, Burn after Reading is really film noir. No one comes to a good end. Even the C.I.A. supervisor is uninterested in the fates of these people who make the mistake of believing that their lives might mean something.