Elaine at the Movies:

Elaine Blum

Movies typically portray our government as smooth-running, secretive, intelligent and highly powerful. Agents are suave, mysterious, sparing of words and intimidating, decked out in suits and aviator shades while toting briefcases with confidential materials. These movies typically portray the government as skilled, knowledgeable and always in control. However, “Burn After Reading” is not a typical movie.
The Cohen brothers completely overthrow this image of government relations with two clueless gym employees, played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. When this overzealous duo finds a disk containing trivial CIA information, they manage to cause quite a lot of trouble and mass confusion for the government and everyone around them, including the audience.
And thus I cannot help but give the movie props for its original storyline. True, I watched most of “Burn After Reading” with my mouth hanging open and a very confused look on my face. When the credits rolled, I even checked online synopses just to see if I had missed some detail that would make sense out of the confusion.
But the confused, loose-knit storyline is part of the film’s charm. The point: some actions are simply irrational, impulsive and ill-advised. The audience’s confusion mirrors the confusion of the characters, which is all terribly appropriate for a movie whose tag line is “Intelligence is relative.”
Besides its unique plot, the movie receives originality points for its captivating character lineup. George Clooney yet again provides the face for the suave charmer, but with a few perverse twists. Brad Pitt plays an energetic-but-dim fitness instructor whose hair defies gravity. Tilda Swinton plays an uptight adulteress with frigidity reminiscent of her role as the White Witch of Narnia, and John Malkovich plays an angry CIA retiree who swears profusely and sports a bathrobe and a scotch for most of the movie.
The standout performance, however, comes from Frances McDormand. She plays an ordinary, insecure-but-determined woman whose sole mission is to find enough money for a series of “necessary” plastic surgeries. Her ordinariness and insecurity are identifiable and her cluelessness is highly comical. Furthermore, her facial expressions are second only to the dance moves busted out by Pitt.
“Burn After Reading” is entertaining, often funny, and yes, I will watch it again, if only to better understand it in its entirety. However, I recommend it with a few qualifications. This movie is for people who: i) have an open sense of humor, ii) do not mind weird movies and iii) do not mind being a little confused. Just be forewarned: This is not your typical comedy.