Treachery, selfishness, and sex. A spy movie that doesn't involve any spying. A mislaid CD, containing the memoirs of a recently fired CIA analyst, causes chaos in the lives of five people.
A dark screwball comedy from the Coen brothers, told much in the manner of two of their previous films, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Nearly every character in this film is self-obssessed and unpleasant, including the usually likeable George Clooney and Frances McDormand. All the big stars happily play against their usual screen personas here: Clooney is a womanising jerk, McDormand is both vain and venal, John Malkovich is a foolish arrogant blowhard, while Brad Pitt is outstanding as a hilariously dim-witted gym rat. The only decent person featured in the film is a character played by Richard Jenkins (mostly known from his stint in Six Feet Under) who is motivated by an unrequited love for McDormand.
The unpleasantness of the characters does make the film hard to love, and at times, it does seem like an exercise in style only. The layers of plot and irony help resist any obvious analysis. The film actually ends with a coda that lampoons the idea that the events shown have any point at all. Yet Burn After Reading does have a moral core. All the characters are blinkered by their own short-term needs and it's their selfishness that brings disaster on most of them.
If the film has another theme, then it's about how people need to make sense of random events by jumping to conclusions, ascribing a narrative thread where non exists. Sometimes there is no story. Life is just a bunch of stuff that happens.
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