“Jesus what a clusterfuck” is the CIA boss’s fitting assessment of the situation at the end of Burn After Reading, after a group of inadequates have taken just enough time off from screwing each other to create a bloody, criminal mess that is entirely of their own making and results in death and serious injury but hopefully a free boob job too.
So let’s go back to the beginning. We’re in the CIA headquarters in Virginia with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). He’s a CIA analyst suffering from middle-aged narcissism and a drink problem and that means a demotion (well, the drink problem does). I’ve never been demoted but I have been made redundant so many times that poor Osbourne’s meeting struck a chord, even though I don’t have a drink problem unless you include tea.
Naturally as a middle-aged narcissist he has to indulge in some serious deflecting to make himself feel better before he achieves a hollow victory by resigning: “Fuck you Peck you’re a Mormon! Next to you we all have a drinking problem… Whose ass didn’t I kiss?… This is a crucifixion, this is political and don’t tell me it’s not!”
Osbourne, or Ozzie, is one of those people who thinks everything is everyone else’s fault which must be a hard position to maintain when you’re married to Tilda Swinton who makes clear everything is actually your fault. He decides to fill his newly free time writing (“Write? Write what?” asks his wife irritably. Then again her every word is said irritably).
Ozzie’s wife Katie is having an affair with married Treasury worker Harry (George Clooney), to whom she also speaks irritably. Harry is a freewheeler and a player. Ozzie’s new situation pushes her to think seriously about divorce, a development which has her lawyer practically salivating with glee as he encourages her to dig out her husband’s financials just in case.
After the kerfuffle over the drinking problem he doesn’t have, Ozzie does indeed start writing his memoirs, though it’s hard work lying on a couch talking about oneself into a dictaphone so he has to stop for a drink quite regularly.
Meanwhile at the local Hardbodies gym, Katie’s lawyer’s assistant has accidentally left behind the disc containing not only Katie and Ozzie’s financial information but also his memoir which has been inadvertently included. Linda (bright and desperate) and Chad (dumb and dumber) are fitness trainers at Hardbodies and examine the newly found disc before getting involved in an entirely self-made and disastrous attempt to leverage their find for money.
Linda (Frances McDormand) is a proponent of positive thinking but so far it’s not done much for her. Her life is passing her by while she is stuck on one of those circle of hell telephone systems, and her time away from the blower is barely enough for her to check out potential partners on online dating websites. As part of her self-improvement she is desperate for a rather long list of cosmetic procedures but her insurance won’t cover them. (Linda is, despite her descent into criminality, by far the nicest person in the whole film.)
Chad (Brad Pitt) seems to be on this earth to incentivise ladies to exercise, and to make puppies and toddlers look bright (I say that as I once read that dogs and two year olds have the same level of intelligence and while it didn’t specify what level that was, they’re not running the CIA are they).
Chad is awestruck by the financial information on the disc (“… and then there’s these other files that are just like… numbers!”) and the CIA memoir, which looks much more important than it is, but is horrified by the suggestion from Linda that they put up a note in the ladies’ locker room to find the owner: “Put up a note? Highly classified shit found?”
Chad and Linda try to blackmail Ozzie into paying them to return the disc, but confusion over its worth reigns as they mistake Ozzie’s fury over someone reading his work too soon (I mean, who wants their unedited drivel read by all and sundry? Oh) for evidence of its classified nature and high value. They then try to leverage it with the Russian Embassy and plan to use the money to pay for Linda’s cosmetic surgery.
Linda gets off the phone long enough to meet a man from the website, which finishes with the worst first date sex I’ve ever seen though she probably got some mental shopping lists done at the same time so it’s not all bad. Harry, whose many affairs seem to run concurrently, is also on the online dating site and soon ends up paired with Linda. And they actually get on brilliantly. Her only requirement is a sense of humour, but for her humility she gets not just the laughs but also George Clooney.
Linda-era Harry is fantastic. He is an arrogant coward who will ultimately save only himself, but on the surface he is great fun. And I’m guessing the Harry/Linda sex didn’t involve any shopping lists unless they were role-playing. The cherry on top of their compatibility cake is when he finally shows her what he’s been building in his basement, a contraption which I can only describe as what you would get if IKEA made sex toys.
By this point the movie is a sort of cross between a spy thriller and a screwball comedy with missing discs, burgled houses and stolen files; and then people dying or at the very least having the shit kicked out of them. But it’s always entertaining which is the most you can expect from deaths and people having the shit kicked out of them really. And there are so many affairs going on we probably need a Venn diagram to properly explain it.
With events slipping out of control, Harry starts to crumble. His happy go lucky persona starts to slip and he has to take his anger out on something. Witnessing him smashing up the lovingly-built creation in his basement is like watching a sexy version of Whac-A-Mole as the structure collapses under his onslaught but a giant pink dildo pops up again and again.
As Linda becomes more desperate she becomes tougher and more forthright – more like Katie, in fact. “What kind of Micky Mouse embassy are you running anyway, I’ve been waiting for 45 minutes!” she screams at the Russians when her need for money to pay for her surgeries becomes ever more pressing.
Burn After Reading is hilarious, short and snappy. The performances are all first rate, and let’s face it there are few things as entertaining as watching the shallow and self-obsessed overreach themselves. “What did we learn?” asks CIA boss JK Simmons at the end, but if I’m honest all I really wanted to learn was whether Linda got her boob job and lost her bingo wings.