Joel and Ethan Coen have an unusual and dark view of the world that they brilliantly project through a variety of genres. And they use much more swearing than is really necessary. In fact Burn After Reading is rated R for “pervasive language” among other things. I’ll talk a little more about that later.
Osborn Cox (John Malkovich) is an analyst working for the CIA who gets demoted so he quits. He decides to write a memoir. His cheating wife (Tilda Swinson) decides to divorce him and the lawyer tells her to get all his financial information. She copies his files including his memoirs. When the disk is found in the ladies locker room at a gym called Hardbodies, Chad (a hilarious Brad Pitt) thinks he’s found some top secret documents worth some “reward” money. He and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who wants several body sculpting surgeries, decide to try for the money. Cox is a jerk however, and instead of just telling them they don’t have anything, he causes them to think they have something really important and valuable. Somehow George Clooney figures into all this, first as the man Mrs. Cox is cheating with, then he is with Linda. It all gets tangled up Coen Brothers style and there is no “happily-ever-after.”
Why do the Coens find excessive swearing so invigorating? John Malkovich basically spends the movie saying “WTF?” Only he doesn’t abbreviate. However, Malkovich does a fantastic job of being a jerk and the swearing seems like something his character actually would say, not something forced into the script for humor or shock like Pappy O’Daniel in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Basically everyone in this movie is a moron, but that could be expected as it’s in Washington, D.C. Burn After Reading is slow paced and not the best Coen Brothers movie, but it is funny and a fully enjoyable black comedy if that’s your thing.
There, now I’ve written a review of a Coen Brothers movie without using the word “quirky” other than in this sentence, of course.