Viewed on DVD...
Burn After Reading got gypped by the critics. It's not laugh out loud funny, but even when the Coen Brothers are hilarious (O' Brother, Where Art Thou?, Hudsucker Proxy), their work is unfairly dismissed. Just as when they're ponderous (The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country For Old Men), their work is leg-humped, critically speaking.
With Burn After Reading, the brothers once again prove that nobody writes stupid like they do. Nobody comes even close. They're experts at it. They take stupid characters to a whole other level.
My favourite moment in the film is a subtle one, very early on in the going. George Clooney, the Coens' favourite celluloid idiot, is at a party. A smirking dimwit, he hesitates over a plate of cheese. He says something like: "Hmm ... better not ... I really shouldn't ... I have this thing ... I'm lactose ... I have a lactose reflux thing ..." John Malkovich's character, holding the cheese, stares Clooney down contemptuously and informs him that either he is lactose intolerant or he has acid reflux, but that they're not even remotely the same thing.
I thought of Preston Sturges a lot while I was watching Burn After Reading, with its endless roster of nitwit characters. Sturges LOVED his nitwits, just like the Coen Brothers love theirs. Another reason I thought of the grand old man of American film comedy is the fine level of absurdity that's achieved. A final reason is that Sturges liked to zero in on particular social sets of well-to-dos and workaday-joes and tear them apart equally, and that's just what the Coens do here.
The inspired Coens here are mining undiscovered pay dirt: the professional suburbs of Washington D.C. They rather effortlessly tie together the paranoia, absurdity, duplicity, and ultimate meaninglessness of state espionage and the paranoia, absurdity, duplicity and ultimate meaninglessness of personal relationships.
In fact, I think it was all too effortless. It went almost unrecognized, certainly underappreciated. Some folks might've been dismayed that Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand play workaday idiots easily as contemptible as their upper middle class counterparts. I suspect people don't like to see people as beautiful and popular as Brad Pitt portrayed as such jack-assess.
There's no real ending to the movie other than a shrugging "that's the way it goes" type deal that only adds to the cynicism. The following North American institutions are given the full lampooning: marriage, state security, fidelity, personal ambition, and the cult of self-improvement. All are more or less revealed to be pipe dreams. Talk about your sacred cows. Also, right up my alley.