Burn After Reading is a monumentally stupid movie. I say this not as an insult or as a way to criticize the film, but instead simply as a descriptor. All of its characters act like morons and the story is silly and implausible. There’s nothing intelligent here and this actually makes the experience kind of fun. But only kind of.
I can’t describe the plot. I could try, and I will try, but to fully explain how the plot is set-up, or how all of the characters fit into place, would be impossible. There are a lot of people to keep track of, and a lot of subplots to follow, even if some of them don’t really have any purpose. The story opens with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a name that you will remember for a long time because it gets repeated a large number of times. He’s married to a wife (Tilda Swinton) who’s cheating on him with another man, Harry (George Clooney).
After copying Osbourne’s financial records and part of his memoir, (oh, he’s writing a memoir because he quite his job because he got demoted for being an alcoholic), a disk containing this information gets left at the local gym, where two employees, Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt), find it. Linda wants surgery to improve her appearance, and decides to try to blackmail Osbourne for money to get these surgeries. It doesn’t work, and then the government may or may not get involved, with characters constantly meeting one another and always being paranoid that they’re being watched. And they’re all morons.
Most of the plot is propelled forward by the characters acting this way. People do things that you’d never expect, because nobody in real life would actually act this way. So yes, it is surprising when things happen, but it’s surprising because you never have any idea what should be going on, instead of being truly shocking. This takes away some of the shock-value, because nothing can make an impact this way. You’ll acknowledge it, and then not care because something of a similar vein will have already happened.
There are also points in the film that are pointless. There’s one scene in the movie where we see Clooney’s character meeting another woman, one we had never seen before and wasn’t of any importance. They meet in a restaurant, but nothing is ever done with this. We already knew that this character was a cheat, so I don’t understand what purpose was served by including this scene. Maybe I missed something, but it seemed pointless to me.
There’s another pointless part that I actually enjoyed, but that’s because it was funny. There are a couple of times where we cut away to two government officials, (one of whom is J.K. Simmons), as they try to figure out what’s going on in the plot. Their reactions make these scenes funny. They know that what’s going on isn’t important, as do we, even though all of the characters treat the situations as life-or-death. Apart from being funny — and maybe informing the audience of what’s happening if they get lost — these parts serve no purpose. But since they’re funny, and this is supposed to be a comedy, I liked these scenes.
Throughout the film, there are funny moments. Most of the time, the comedy comes from the characters doing things that we don’t expect. But this tires out, and eventually you become tired of seeing people act like they have an IQ of less than 10, and instead just want the film to end — something that happens very abruptly, thankfully. It’s an odd ending, but I can’t say that I wanted any more out of the story after it concluded, even if the ending does come out of nowhere.
The actors don’t do a bad job of portraying their morons. Brad Pitt is especially funny in what it essentially a parody of the stereotypical gym-jock. He doesn’t get quite enough screen time for my liking, but what little he does get, he makes the most of. But even though the actors are good, their characters are not ones that we want to eliminate. They’re not likable, and they’re not ones we want to see more of. Some of them are adulterers, while others are extortionists. These aren’t the kind of people we want to spend time with, and it means it’s hard to sympathize with them. Well, because of that and their limited intelligence.
Burn After Reading is intermittently funny, but often too boring and moronic to have fun with. There are a few really good moments, but others where I found myself wanting to kill everyone on-screen. Since these characters are all, essentially, idiots, it’s hard to take them seriously or follow what little “plot” there is. My feelings are mixed when it comes to this film, but they’re generally negative. There are just too many times when I found myself bored or angry to call it an enjoyable experience. If you want to watch simpletons act like imbeciles for an hour and a half, this is what you want to watch. If that idea repulses you, stay far away from Burn After Reading.