Burn After Reading is one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen – I can’t figure out why I sat there laughing. The characters ranged from self-absorbed, cheating spouses to bumbling idiots to lovelorn swains. John Malkovitch played the self-aggrandized, mid-level CIA analyst to perfection. He was perhaps the least guilty (which is not to say most innocent) of the characters while inadvertently facilitating the course of events. George Clooney’s smarminess had just the right amount of slickness to keep you hovering between disgust and snickers of laughter. Brad Pitt’s character perhaps required the most courage, because what else would allow an internationally popular celebrity to give up control of his face, body, and voice to create a personality with that level of cheerful dimness. Frances McDormand also delivered as a searching, but dogged woman who will do what it takes to get what she needs.
The plotline was nothing more than a series of mishaps and bad decisions made by the loosely interwoven set of characters. Mysterious strangers, accidental shootings, late-night blackmail, and intermittent calls to McDormand’s HMO generated a few truly funny moments and several instances of bewildered laughter. Perhaps the funniest scenes for me were at the CIA, where senior managers provided a backdrop to the action with their dry summations of the events. The Agency is an ally with the audience in their complete mystification of how and why things are happening. At the same time, the dialogue is funny because deep in the pit of their stomachs, the audience knows that this is what must really happen at the agency – and its very scariness is somehow funny.
If you want a thoughtful and insightful experience at the cinema this week, don’t go see this movie. If you want to park your brain at the door and spend 2 hours laughing helplessly without knowing why – this is the film for you.