“Burn After Reading” is a rollicking romp. After the morose, lauded “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers have returned quite quickly with a slapstick gem which zips along on the crest of a zany story, hilarious script and a bounty of beautifully fulfilled comic performances.
The hoot of a film revolves serpentinely around deceitful endeavors with the key chicanery centering on the retrieval of a stolen CD filled with sensitive information. But the intertwined plot takes a secondary place to the performances because, ultimately, “Burn After Reading” is an acting delight. Throughout their career, Joel and Ethan Coen have allowed actors to thrive in original characterizations and immerse themselves in distinctly memorable creations. From Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter to Jeff Bridges, Javier Bardem and John Turturro, a succession of movie stars and thespians have unleashed seminal characters in their films. So it’s no great surprise that with a film laden with comic hijinks and satirical underpinnings, the brothers encouraged an A-list ensemble of superb actors to cavort brazenly.
John Malkovich, who is physically morphing steadily into Pablo Picasso, plays Osbourne Cox, a perturbed, retired CIA analyst, with ground-teeth exasperation and menace. His delicate, perhaps even nationally sensitive memoirs are discovered by a bumbling duo of health club fitness trainers. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt revel in their roles as the quirky Hardbodies employees. Pitt appears to love sending up his hunk status with bouts of outrageous physical humor replete with gyrations, flicks, and facial gymnastics. His Chad Feldheimer is a lovable goofball, complete with a “Johnny Suede” pompadour. Wide-eyed and bob cut, McDormand exudes a delightful air of feisty cluelessness as the ringleader, Linda Litzke.
George Clooney delivers a wickedly clever interpretation of suburban unrest as the philandering Harry Pfarrer, a married Treasury Department Marshal who becomes romantically linked with several of the main protagonists. Like Pitt, he not only isn’t afraid to tweak his “sexiest man alive” image he seems to relish the opportunity. As one of his suitors and Osbourne’s wife, Tilda Swinton channels her “Michael Clayton” shrewishness by apparently, once again, scrunching all her body fat and human compassion in her hands, wringing them, and discarding the contents as superfluous, lending Katie Cox all the cuddliness of an isosceles triangle.
Even the more tangential supporting roles buffer the film with quality and guile, including Richard Jenkins as the gym manager whose furtive longing is as excruciating as an emotional pull-up. The repartee is swift and absurd between J.K. Simmons as the perplexed “CIA Superior” and David Rasche — best known for the title role in “Sledge Hammer” — as the baffled “CIA Officer.”
“Burn After Reading” is a smart, fast-paced screwball comedy which includes a staggeringly funny visual gag as one of Pfarrer’s visits to Home Depot ultimately delivers a fresh meaning to “DIY.”