When a disc containing memoirs of a former CIA analyst falls into the hands of gym employees, Linda and Chad, they see a chance to make enough money for Linda to have life-changing cosmetic surgery. Predictably, events whirl out of control for the duo, and those in their orbit.
No Country For Humanity. The relentless cynicism in Burn After Reading hardly makes for a pleasant viewing experience, although I perhaps wasn't quite in the mood for this kind of farce right now. Mind you, I doubt I'll ever understand the love for Brad Pitt in this movie; whilst thick with Pitt-isms and mugging to the camera, his act seems a little thin on actual acting. Indeed, the generally stacked (and ludicrously recognisable) cast actually increases the paratextual distance between the film and the audience, making Burn After Reading even more difficult to relate to… and makes watching the film even less fun. On top of that, it was unpleasant to see the Coens' mock the Mexican janitor, who is additionally the only racial minority in the film, thus confirming a comment I recently read about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The Coens […] have a gift for the absurd and a penchant for cruelty, tendencies that, without the tempering quality of a recognizably human presence […] can make the Coens come across as insufferably superior and bullying. Comedy needs fools with funny faces, but comedy without gentleness is often just sadism. […] With the exceptions of the hard-working supporting cast […] the characters have been conceived as variations on self-deluded boobishness. Some (like Katie) appear sharper than others, others dumber (Linda), but they’re all punch lines in an overly extended joke. […] The Coens […] have made their careers with impeccable technique and an exaggerated visual style — they sure love their low-angle shots and traveling cameras — but it’s a wonder they keep making films about a subject for which they often evince so little regard, namely other people.
— Manohla Dargis (The New York Times)
Everyone in the movie is thoroughly stupid and contemptible, but ascendant among them is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), the north-of-40 dim bulb who works as the assistant manager of a suburban Washington gym called HardBodies and whose only concern is the extensive plastic surgery she thinks she needs to capture a man. If there were any point in taking Burn After Reading seriously — and if McDormand weren't married to Joel Coen — one could point to Linda as an especially horrifying example of Hollywood misogyny. Maybe you still can, but of course the magic of casting McDormand is that she somehow makes this self-centered imbecile, who unleashes a violent and chaotic chain of events, seem like a spunky American-movie heroine. […] Beneath its movie star clowning, its awful-but-relatable heroine and its lightweight gags, Burn After Reading poses an implicit challenge to its viewers: Can you figure out why this comedy isn't very funny? Could that be because its central proposition is that the people in the theater are just as stupid, just as gullible, just as eager to be deceived as the people on the screen?
— Andrew O'Hehir (Salon)
The Coens are ice-pick cruel, dismissive of sentiment, meticulous in their design and utterly without hope. Sometimes they’re so repelled that their work is itself mildly repellent, at least on a first viewing.
— Kyle Smith (NY Post)