By Movie Lover (25 Nov 2008)
Burn After Reading, is a new comedy thriller from Academy Award winners, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski).
At the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Arlington, Virginia, analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) arrives for a top-secret meeting. Unfortunately for Cox, the secret is soon out: he is being ousted. Cox does not take the news particularly well and returns to his Georgetown home to work on his memoirs and his drinking, not necessarily in that order. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is dismayed, though not particularly surprised; she is already well into an illicit affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married Federal Marshal, and sets about making plans to leave Cox for Harry. At the counsel of her divorce lawyer, Katie copies many of his personal and financial files off his computer and onto an optical disc.
Elsewhere in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and seemingly worlds apart, Hardbodies Fitness Centers employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) can barely concentrate on her work. She is consumed with her life plan for extensive cosmetic surgery, and confides her mission to can-do colleague Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda is all but oblivious to the fact that the gym's manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) pines for her even as she arranges dates via the Internet with other men.
When a computer disc containing material for the CIA analyst's memoirs accidentally falls into the hands of Linda and Chad, the duo are intent on exploiting their find. They intend to use the disk to blackmail Osbourne - Linda needs the money to pay for cosmetic surgery. As Ted frets, "No good can come of this," events spiral out of everyone's and anyone's control, in a cascading series of darkly hilarious encounters. They call up Cox in the middle of the night, but he is not receptive. When blackmailing him fails, Linda decides to take the information to the Russian embassy. At the embassy, she hands the disk over to the Russians, promising that she will give more information afterwards. Because Linda and Chad don't have any more information, they decide to break into Cox's house.
By now Harry and Linda have met and begin seeing each other. Chad stakes out the Cox's house and breaks in when Harry and Katie leave. Harry, however, comes back, finds Chad, and accidentally shoots him in the face. Harry, thinking that Chad was a spy, disposes of the body. Days later, his paranoia increasing after murdering Chad, Harry leaves the Cox residence after a fight with Katie. On his way to leave he manages to tackle a man who has been trailing him for some time, thinking he was working for the CIA or some other government agency. After tackling him, Harry finds out that the man is working for a divorce firm hired by his wife who, it is later revealed, also has been cheating on him. Harry is devastated and goes to see Linda.
The next morning, Harry and Linda meet in a park. When he realizes that Chad was Linda's associate, he becomes paranoid and flees in terror. Meanwhile, Osbourne returns to his home only to find himself locked out because Katie changed locks in a final move in her secret divorce proceedings. He sleeps overnight in his boat, and the next day breaks into his own house with a hatchet. There he finds Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), the manager of Hardbodies, rifling through his computer looking for personal information. Due to his feelings for Linda, Ted decided to look for more information to give to the Russians, believing that the Russians had kidnapped Chad. Osbourne shoots Ted, who survives and runs out of the house. Osbourne grabs the hatchet and kills Ted in broad daylight.
The movie ends by returning to the CIA's headquarters, where an official (David Rasche) and his director (J.K. Simmons) are trying to sort out what happened: Chad is dead, Ted is dead, Osbourne is in a vegetative state and dying after being shot by an agent while attacking Ted, Harry has been arrested trying to board a flight to Venezuela (but the CIA wants to let him leave anyway so he's out of their hair), and Linda has agreed to cooperate in exchange for the CIA financing her plastic surgery. The baffled CIA agents then decide that they have learned their lesson: to never repeat whatever it is that they did in this case; though they are still not clear what it is they did.