In a spoiler-free nutshell, Burn After Reading had the tone of Fargo, but the nihilist, “anti-movie” bent of Big Lebowski. It has people getting killed and losers trying to extort money from others (staples in a Coen Brothers film), but it constantly tries to subvert your expectations and make you realize how unimportant it all is.
In most other reviews that I have written (found elsewhere on the internet), right now would be the point where I’d give a summation of the film’s plot. However, for this film, I’d rather you not know anything about it, since most of the fun comes from watching the whole thing unfurl like the pulled string on a sweater’s seam.
As a friend of mine pointed out, Burn After Reading was basically a satire of the espionage genre, and I think the film plays best if you see it as such. The ominous music during key scenes and the inherent secret government trappings of Washington, D.C. make you think that all of the events are of great importance. A few minutes later, it’s revealed that whatever notion of urgency or gravity you thought a certain story element had was completely meaningless. Case in point: George Clooney’s character’s “secret device” subplot.
Personally, I laughed my ass off at some points, namely the “wrap-up” scenes with J.K. Simmons. But I found the movie funny simply because I could see that the Coen Brothers were intentionally trying to make a movie that screwed over the audience. I mean really do one over on them. If the “non-ending” of No Country for Old Men was a slap in the face, then Burn After Reading‘s ending is a full-on blanket party.
Despite my tone regarding what you’ve read here, I really enjoyed the movie. However, I don’t know how it would hold to repeat viewings simply because a lot of the humor and purpose of the movie comes from the surprise of watching the non-events unfold in an inconsequential manner. And then conclude… sort of. It’s complicated.
Fargo is to noir crime drama as Burn After Reading is to government spy thriller.