“It’s our Tony Scott ‘Bourne Identity’ movie,” Ethan Coen remarks in the all-too-brief bonus features on the “Burn After Reading” DVD. After a perfectly timed beat comes the punchline: “But without the explosions.” Just like “The Big Lebowski” was the Coens’ tongue-in-cheek take on Raymond Chandler stories, so is “Burn After Reading” their tongue-in-cheek take on tense spy thrillers in the Robert Ludlum vein.
The film’s construction is “Short Cuts”-like during the first half as it tracks two parallel storylines. Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is an a*****e of a CIA analyst who is marginalized at his job, presumably because of a drinking problem, and quits. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is an ice-cold pediatrician who’s having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry’s wife is a children’s book author who’s about to embark on a lengthy book tour, giving him the perfect opportunity to take his philandering to new levels.
Meanwhile, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is a dim-witted gym employee who desperately desires the money to pay for four plastic surgeries. Equally dim-witted co-worker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) finds a disc at the gym and discovers on it what appears to be top-secret information. He thinks its owner will pay a “Good Samaritan fee” for its return, leading Linda to believe that extorting that person will allow her to pay for the surgeries. We soon learn that after Katie had Osbourne served with divorce papers and changed the locks at their house, her lawyer’s secretary accidentally lost the CD, which contains Osbourne’s financial information and a draft of his memoirs.
The parallel storylines soon intersect, with hilarious results. This is easily the Coens’ funniest movie since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” It’s full of many laugh-out-loud moments. Every character is an idiot or an a*****e, but all of them desire sex or money, the two things that tend to cause the biggest problems in human relations. The Coens make sure they follow all the threads in this Gordian knot, even if that means ending a few characters’ lives by the closing credits.
This disc also follows the trend of most Coen brothers’ films in its light assortment of extras. There’s no commentary track, leaving us with three featurettes: “Finding the Burn” (5.5 minutes) follows the Coens’ creative process and the genesis of this story, with the cast throwing in their thoughts; “DC Insiders Run Amuck” (12 minutes) covers the main cast members’ characters; and “Welcome Back George” (three minutes) discusses the fact that Clooney tends to play idiots in their movies.