Back in 2008, the Coen Brothers delivered Burn After Reading, an off-beat comedy about a group of idiotic nobodies who find themselves entangled in a ridiculous plot involving an ex-CIA operative and his leaked memoirs.
On paper, this is very much the template for most Coen Brothers comedies with a clueless ensemble having to run around a nonsensical maze of misunderstandings. And yet, Burn After Reading is very different than the filmmakers' earlier works in the same genre like The Big Lebowski or even Raising Arizona. The main difference here is that there essentially isn't a plot in this film with characters all working towards their own individual goals without there being one overarching storyline to link it all together. If anything, the CIA is the only common element throughout but with the exception of John Malkovitch's character, who gets fired from the organisation early on, no-one else is directly linked to the CIA and the latter doesn't interfere with what's going on since they can't even figure it out themselves. This makes Burn After Reading a bit of a frustrating watch since it's all about dumb people doing dumb things but it's written and performed so well that it somehow works.
The point of the film being that sometimes there's just no accounting for how random people's actions are and crazy s**t just... happens. The firing of Osborne Cox (Malkovitch) may be a mostly insignificant act but its impact has a domino effect that the flawed characters in this story are not capable of handling. The whole cast from George Clooney's goofy serial-dater to Brad Pitt's mindless gym instructor is flawless and has a hell of a great time delivering all the sharp, funny lines they've been given. Visually, this is one of the Coens' least flashy films but this one really doesn't need anything too fancy in terms of cinematography and art direction so it looks good enough. The lack of a conventional plot might alienate some viewers expecting a clear narrative or a third act that truly ties the room together (Lebowski pun intended) but this is a movie that benefits from repeat viewings as the clever little touches become more apparent once the initial mess is cleared up.
While unlikely to become everyone's favourite Coen Brothers movie, Burn After Reading is an underrated screwball comedy with a hilarious script and an excellent cast. The random nature of the film may be initially distracting but, ultimately, it's a smart and refreshing alternative to dumb mainstream Hollywood comedies.
Funny, goofy stuff.