All the more stunning, then, that only two of the roles given to this sterling ensemble are even remotely likable (and they're the ones who suffer the most dire consequences). Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) is a paranoid womanizer who cuts off his children's book author wife (Elizabeth Marvel) at stuffy Georgetown parties. Newly laid-off "bozo" with a drinking problem Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is prone to violent fits, and his adulterous "cold bitch" wife Katie (Swinton) is planning on divorcing him.
As obnoxious fitness studio employee Linda Litzke, Frances McDormand bickers with insurance agents over her cosmetic surgery, Jenkins is her hang-dog boss, and Brad Pitt caricatures an idiotic personal trainer who grooves to his iPod while permanently sucking on a sports drink. They're all dumb, greedy, selfish, grating and cruel, and why anybody would want to spend time with them is a mystery to me. Chalk it up to the Coens' much-cited misanthropy or misplaced satirical intent, but there's nothing enjoyable or insightful about hanging out with this duplicitous crowd.
Once again, the Coens can't resist ending the film with a law enforcement figure (JK Simmons taking the mantle from Tommy Lee Jones) who spells out the moral for us, such as it is: "What did we learn? Not to do this again." Like No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading concludes with a defeated shrug that betrays the Coens' contempt for their characters and their audience. The film's last words adequately express his and my exasperation with this pointless, joyless tale: "Jesus Christ!"
Burn After Reading (2008)
Directed by: The Coen Brothers
Release Date: September 12, 2008 (wide)
Distributor: Focus Films
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.