When random is inspired, when twisted plotlines actually make a whole lot of sense and when comedy sneaks forward without a fussy signpost, then you're on to something great.
Take several couples, co-workers, friends and enemies and interweave their lives in a web of seduction, deceit, online dating, plastic surgery and conspiracy theories.
In no particular order, it goes something like this... Linda (McDormand), Chad (Pitt) and Ted (Jenkins) work at HardBodies gym, although Chad seems to be the only one who is in any way interested in exercise. Elsewhere in town, alcoholic CIA agent Osbourne 'Ozzy' Cox (Malkovich) is getting demoted, while his wife Katie (Swinton) is having an affair with a federal marshal called Harry (Clooney), and a married one at that.
They all have little connections - some are friends or merely casual acquaintances, some are just people whose paths cross without them really realising. But something is about to kick off that will impact upon all of them. Ozzy has decided to write a tell-all account of his time in the CIA in order to lift the lid on the association that he feels betrayed him. But when his wife decides to divorce him, and begins copying files off his PC, a disc containing his revelatory work winds up in the locker room of HardBodies. Normal people probably wouldn't even investigate its contents but hyperactive gym worker Chad is anything but normal.
With his co-conspirator Linda, Chad sets about blackmailing Ozzy, trying to sell so-called 'intelligence' and generally getting himself in far too deep for comfort (all in the hope of raising cash for Linda's plastic surgery). Meanwhile, the aforementioned Linda is scouring the Internet in search of Mr Right, a mission that puts her in touch with an unlikely link in the chain of lies and secrets, leading to some unfortunate outcomes. And there's no hiding place for anyone as two CIA agents (Rasche and Simmons on top form) have been forced to feign an interest in all of the goings-on.
'Burn After Reading' is inspired work from the Coen brothers. It has a fantastically dark script, bursting with witty dialogue, that is all about the timing. The all-star cast deliver far beyond expectation, never letting the writers down. Malkovich is on fire, showcasing a real comic genius. Swinton plays the stuck-up cheater to perfection. Clooney is spot-on as the bumbling, guilty, inventor-come-fed. And Jenkins deserves a nod as the pining gym manager, who might as well be invisible to his colleagues.
But the show belongs to Pitt and McDormand, as perfect partners-in-crime. Both show a real flair for the particular brand of dark comedy on offer here, with Pitt sensational as the younger-than-his-years, excitable, bleached-hair-sporting personal trainer. His killer one-liners, dance moves and goofy expressions will have you in absolute stitches.
Movies with this many subplots, particularly intertwined ones, always run a risk of taking things too far. The plots either knit or they spell disjointedness for the whole movie. In 'Burn After Reading' it just works. It's smart, it's funny, it pokes fun at so many things and yet it never forgets its mission to entertain.