Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) was called into the office of his boss (David Rasche) at the C.I.A. for some bad news: he was being taken off the Eastern European assignment that had been his speciality all these years. The reason for this, it was strongly hinted at in the discussion, was down to his drinking problem, but he rejected that out of hand and was so angry he refused to be reassigned to a lesser post and walked out on his job. What he did not know was that because of this major upheaval to him, but minor upheaval to the world at large, there was trouble brewing...
Burn After Reading was the film the Coen brothers made after No Country for Old Men, their Oscar-winning and much respected opus that was plain to see as one of their serious movies. This was not, as it stood as one of their comedies, which typically took a dim view of human nature, and no dimmer view was there than how the characters were depicted here, to the extent that not only were the writers and directors not prepared to offer them any smart behaviour to redeem themselves even briefly, but the filmmakers came across as if they were mightily pissed off at the world in general that could conjure up such personalities.
Thus the all star cast that was assembled were required to play it considerably idiotic, thereby giving the Coens all the excuse they needed to punish them for over an hour and a half. Among that line up was George Clooney as a treasury agent who is having an affair with Osborne's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), a woman who does not suffer fools gladly, which might make you ponder what she's doing in this movie until you catch on that she's a fool as well. Osborne, deciding he wants to get in shape, considers a gym run by manager Richard Jenkins, who is secretly in love with his co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), but then her best friend Chad (Brad Pitt) sees a chance for them all to better themselves.
What Linda most wants is plastic surgery to improve her ageing body, but she does not have the funds, so when Chad brings a disc full of text to her attention, her interest is piqued. A chance of blackmail is settled upon, as that disc has the notes for Osborne's memoirs on it, and the dim duo believe that what they have in their possession is some red hot top secret material, not realising as we do that all that text is simply some self-serving nonsense that Osborne has dreamt up now he has so much time on his hands. From this none too lucid beginning a collection of events spiral out of control and into supposedly rich comic pickings, but while you can see how this could be funny, there's a hitch.
That being that the Coens come across as actively despising the silly people running around this low grade conspiracy, so there's more than one instance of them being put through the mill for their pathetic dreams and schemes. You could argue that this was nothing more than they deserved, and that would appear to be the point of the shaggy dog tale playing out here, but every so often it's as if the filmmakers have a small crisis of conscience and allow a moment of self-realisation for them - not so much that means they see the error of their ways, more so that they can perceive the tightening of the screws on them and the mess they have gotten into. The actors enjoy themselves, but that patronising, exasperated nature of the plot is not one which generates much laughter unless you relish looking down on morons from a great height, not something that the Coens had any qualms about on this evidence. Music by Carter Burwell.