The Coen brothers, it's safe to say, are artists. Their films succeed in craftily showcasing characters that are both bizarre and realistic, with plots that are somehow both simple and intricate. Lately, though, they've managed to succeed on what some might call a greater level: they're box office hits. More or less.
Their last film, Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men, has grossed almost $161 million, and after a weekend opening well outside the box office top-10, the film climbed into the ranks of the top five daily grossers weeks later. That's the power of what we call "word of mouth." And now, after 24 (!) years of making films that critics praise and film snobs drool over, Ethan and Joel Coen have made a film that opened at #1 and has made $37 million in under two weeks. Not bad for a couple of arty types.
Why focus on the money and popularity of Burn After Reading? It's just that this is not an "everybody" kind of movie. It's not a blockbuster. Sure, there are guns, sort of a car chase, Brad Pitt ad George Clooney co-star…but, in essence, this film is a careful character study. Burn After Reading tries defiantly to be about nothing more than a melange of screwballs, and it succeeds.
In case you haven't seen it yet, and you don't believe me, let me attempt to give a short synopsis of this movie: A CIA analyst quits his job. He decides to spend his new-found free time writing his memoirs. His wife is pissed and secretly seeks out a divorce attorney. She copies everything from his personal computer onto a CD to give to her lawyer. It gets intercepted by some gym employees, who think it's government secrets. They try to get the former CIA analyst to reward them for finding it; he sees this as blackmail. When he won't pay up, they head to the Russian consulate to see if Russia is interested in some government "secrets." Russia alerts the CIA, who is mildly concerned and has the gym employees followed.
At this point, the movie's almost over, and yet my synopsis hasn't even touched on several key details and characters (including one of the stars, Clooney). If that alone isn't enough to convince you that this is not your average #1 opening, allow me to point out the film's lack of conclusive ending (we hear a bit of it, but don't see it), the fact that all the action is based on a stupid misunderstanding that's never corrected, or – dare I mention – the creepy homemade sex machine.