After their Oscar-winning 2007 drama No Country For Old Men the filmmaking Coen brothers return to comedy for their new feature: a screwball Washington misadventure involving top secret files, a dimwit personal trainer, a disgruntled CIA analyst, cheating husbands, unfaithful wives and the Russian embassy. Alan Silverman has a look at Burn After Reading.
Chad Feldheimer works at the "Hardbodies" gym, helping paunchy Washington executives get back into shape; but he's sure the computer disc of secret files discovered in the ladies' locker room will change his life. Linda Litzk sells memberships to the gym and she needs money to change her body: plastic surgery she is sure will change her life.
Chad convinces Linda the computer disc is their ticket to fame and fortune because the original owner - Chad earnestly believes - will pay big bucks to get it back.
It turns out the disc contains the jumbled memoirs of a disgruntled former CIA analyst named Osborne Cox; and when he won't pay a ransom for them, the bumbling pair try to peddle the apparently useless files to Russian intelligence. From there it starts to get complicated.
Co-writer and co-director Ethan Coen says Burn After Reading is just meant as a romp and not a commentary on contemporary Washington:
"The characters are probably leading lives that don't have a whole lot of meaning, but they can still be interesting characters and actors in an interesting story," Coen says.
His brother and collaborator Joel Coen adds that the types may be recognizable, but he insists that the characters are not based any specific people ...at least not overtly
"Whenever you do these things you want to be specific about the place that your story is set," he explains. "In that respect we wanted it to be about not just the people who are in government in Washington, but also the people who are just sort of ancillary to that and live in that community. We had in our minds various people that we were thinking vaguely about as sort of references for the characters in a way, but it wasn't a specific kind of lampoon of anything."
Brad Pitt plays against type as the somewhat dense Chad, but he says that's what made the film fun for him.
"The leading man role is the guy who has the answers, can figure things out, defuse the bomb within seconds and is all-experienced," says Pitt. "Although that is pretty good for the ego sometimes it is much more fun to play the guys who make the wrong choices, have limited experience, make the wrong presumptions and then have to deal with it from there. I think that's fun we had with this one."
The CIA analyst Osborne Cox has a great vocabulary, but he may not be as smart as he thinks he is ...or as the veteran dramatic actor playing him, John Malkovich.
"I would never say a character is brighter or less right than I am," Malkovich says. "We have the great misfortune to hear some excerpts from his book and yes I could say certainly that is not a book I would rush out and buy. I feel like it is something I could do without."
According to Joel Coen, the gist of the story is what can happen to the "best laid plans" of everyone, including filmmakers.
"We sort of wanted to do a spy movie," explains Coen. "It didn't really turn out that way. I don't think it is a spy movie, but that was one of the original ideas. Like most of our stuff, it is not really meant to be a comment on Washington. It is really about these particular characters."
Burn After Reading also features Frances McDormand as cosmetic surgery-obsessed Linda. George Clooney plays the illicit love interest of just about every woman in the cast which also includes Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton. The musical score is by frequent Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell.