The common wisdom of Brad Pitt is that he is a character actor in a leading man’s body. His best roles have usually worked against his angelic looks (and cut abs) and let the odd, squirrelly part of Pitt shine. While Hollywood was eager to give him roles like A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall in which he could shine like a new Robert Redford, his true colors showed through in small roles like his cheerfully treacherous stoner in True Romance and his unhinged, manic wannabe eco-terrorist in 12 Monkeys. His most iconic role came in a fusion of the two with Tyler Durden’s filthy, sexy charisma in Fight Club, but it was largely followed by years of undistinguished starring vehicles like The Mexican and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Then the Coen Brothers came calling, and Brad Pitt found the perfect role in Burning After Reading: an airheaded lunk.
Burn After Reading was an odd choice for Joel and Ethan Coen in 2008, but a perfect one for Brad Pitt. The Coen Brothers were just coming off the critical success of No Country for Old Men, for which they had won the Academy Award for Best Picture and literally 75 other film awards. The Cormac McCarthy adaptation was the Coens at their most stripped-down and bleakest, utilizing their talents for neo-noir and Western imagery to their utmost. While many filmmaking teams might seek to capitalize on one of the highest honors in cinema and go for more prestige, the Coens zigged instead of zagging. Burn After Reading was an original script by the two, an ensemble piece of some of their favorite collaborators, and featured Brad Pitt being suddenly shot to death in a closet. Again, an odd choice.
Brad Pitt stars in Burn After Reading as Chad Feldheimer, a dimwitted trainer at a gym named Hardbodies. After John Malkovich’s CIA analyst angrily quits his position (due to a pending demotion over his alcoholism) and decides to write a memoir, his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) accidentally copies it along with their financial records and leaves it in a locker room. This particular kind of dumb mistake is the beating heart of the film, in which no one is quite doing what they think they are and definitely no one is as smart as they think they are. Brad Pitt and his coworker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) get the idea into their heads that they have found classified information to sell, setting into motion a series of events monitored by J. K. Simmons’s unnamed CIA director. In the most understated aspect of the film, the talents of J.K. Simmons for bellowing anger and withering contempt are minimized to lowkey bewilderment over the actions of this group of nitwits.
Over the course of the film, a US Marshal played by George Clooney gets involved, who is having an affair with Tilda Swinton. He is also constructing a budget-conscious sex machine in his basement and is already enormously paranoid before CIA spooks actually do begin to follow him. It is that kind of movie. He is the one who ends up shooting Brad Pitt in the head after a series of misunderstandings involve him sneaking into a house to try to get files that don’t actually matter to avoid conflicts that are not actually truly taking place. Except for J.K. Simmons, pretty much everyone in the movie is in terror of a danger that is only being caused by their own actions.
Burn After Reading is one of Brad Pitt’s more overt comedic roles, notwithstanding his constant eating in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 series of films. He would follow up the movie with interesting (and long-titled) films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with the occasional detour in gallows humor with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Brad Pitt rarely seems to go back to the well of humor that serves him so well, although his recent role in Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s The Lost City and his upcoming Bullet Train show some promising signs of a return to form. But whenever you want to see Brad Pitt truly at his best, you need to try to find him when he is acting the dumbest.