“Is this Osborne Cox?” A simple question in Burn After Reading, but it’s what makes you realize that Brad Pitt is a strong comedic actor. Burn is the latest film from Ethan and Joel Coen. In its simplest terms, the plot revolves around a CD found in a gym locker room.
Simple is not the word to describe the plot. The false assumptions and intricate ties between subplots are anything but simple and it could be easy to get lost. After Pitt shows up on screen, however, the Coens keep everything moving at a fast pace so there’s no time to get lost. Like the characters, you’re often wondering if what you just saw really happened and if it really happened like you think you saw it. When things get too confusing David Rasche and J.K. Simmons (Sledge Hammer and Juno’s dad, respectively, among their other fine character work) show up for the funniest use of exposition I’ve seen in a while.
The first bit of the movie drags a bit as you wait for the comedy to kick in. But it’s a necessary, anticipatory drag that sets up the rest of the movie and the interpersonal relationships: John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton in their loveless marriage; Richard Jenkins’ earnest pining for Frances McDormand, who is only concerned with paying for cosmetic surgeries; George Clooney as Swinton’s and McDormand’s lovers and as a basement inventor.
It would be easy to criticize the writing and acting for creating caricatures instead of characters, but the caricatures are so enjoyable that it’s a forgivable sin. And, for the most part, the caricatures do take on some depth even if they don’t seem like anyone you would know. Pitt and McDormand stand out, particularly Pitt for walking up to the line of mugging, but never crossing it. Clooney, on the other hand, occasionally mugs a bit too much.
All in all, Burn After Reading is a fun movie. Worth seeing in a theater for the group laughter, but you won’t miss much if you wait for the DVD.