It has been said that this film was written at the same time as No Country For Old Men, alternating the days on which they worked on each script and, surely enough, it is possible to identify similar themes in the two pieces. There is a painfully bleak view of human society, a sense of a lawless randomness to all of our actions, and paints each protagonist of life's haphazard events as a mere hapless fool blundering through things they don't understand. However, whereas No Country was a magnificently cinematic canvas that lost viewers in the sheer magnitude of the world they are a part of, Burn After Reading is like going on a disjointed and disorientating fairground ride sitting next to a weird guy who runs a shoe factory.
Burn After Reading sees regular Coen muses George Clooney and Frances McDormand joined by Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton in an all-star cast that has never been more unnecessary in a Hollywood movie. The characters they play are all completely out of their depth in their respective lives. Linda Litzke (McDormand) is a lonely spinster working in a gym, desperately trying to take control of her life, Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) is a treasury agent addicted to lying and sex, Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is a newly redundant and freshly divorced secret agent and Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) is a gym instructor who knows nothing about anything. Their paths cross when a disc containing Cox's memoires is found by Linda and Chad in their gym, mistaking it for sensitive information they see it as their tickets out of their humdrum lives: but they are very very wrong.
To label Burn After Reading a comedy is not totally unfair, but neither is it entirely accurate. There is a certain amount of amusement to be found in the absurdity of the situation each character finds him or herself in, but when this is interspersed with moments of violence, sadness and loneliness that have somehow spilt across from the No Country script it becomes difficult to know how to feel. This ambivalence becomes even more pronounced when we are further confused by the bizarre figures cut by the leading actors. They all play their roles well, but because they are so unlike their usual parts (perhaps with the exception of Clooney in other Coen outings) it is difficult not to find scenes funny when perhaps we should be looking a little deeper into them.
The overall effect is not unsuccessful though. The Coens have created a genuinely interesting portrayal of the sense of an isolated and haphazard existence that characterises the negative side of postmodern western society, and it is punctuated neatly by the moments of dark humour that the brothers do so well. However, the film is also a victim of the Coen's success. The A-list casting and visual and thematic overspill from the critically acclaimed and massively successful No Country for Old Men to some extent overshadow the achievements and individuality of this movie. That said: I'd still recommend watching it as these brothers remain among Hollywood's elite when it comes to producing material that is both challenging and entertaining.
EXTRAS ** A "My SCenes" feature, available while the film is playing, that lets you bookmark favourite scenes; Finding The Burn, a making-of featurette; another featurette called DC Insiders Run Amuck, which is more behind-the-scenes stuff; and Welcome Back George, a featurette about how much the Coens love the Clooney. Sadly, no audio commentary or deleted scenes or gag reel.