There are three schools of thought when it comes to judging the Coen movies. First off, there are people that have seen most of their films but for whatever reason don't dig the vibe. Then there are the people who are unaware of them overall (we'll call them the "general public" based on only one Coen film ever cracking $100 million). Then there's my crowd, the folks who love them. Mine is a love that has grown over the past two decades, an adoration that causes me to suggest films like The Man Who Wasn't There to people, while knowing in my heart they probably won't enjoy it. So then, this review is coming at you from a fellow who goes into a Coen film expecting to be thoroughly entertained.
Burn After Reading is a convoluted tale of blackmail, marital woes, philandering, and plastic surgery. In typical Coen fashion it highlights the occasional absurdity of human interaction. Brad Pitt plays a gym trainer, he and his co-worker Frances McDormand become embroiled in a hapless attempt to blackmail former C.I.A. employee John Malkovich. Clooney is in there too, as a gentleman involved with Malkovich's wife (Tilda Swinton). Overall, the movie has a definite Woody Allen / Quentin Tarantino feel; the emphasis of the film is the interwoven plot threads which are held together by various wacky relationships.
The reason this film gets a slightly above average grade is the strength of Brad Pitt's silliness and the momentum the movie has near the end. When the brothers do tie it all together it works. The final scene is clever, and you sort of wonder if the script was started with the end in mind. The movie is also an odd sort of homage to sound editing. I know that sounds strange, but if you see the film you'll notice how particular the brothers are with tight shots of feet walking to a perfect click-click-click on a tile floor. I'm not sure what got into them, but I had to laugh as they went back to the method more than once.
Sadly, the film doesn't make the Coen pantheon because it's not consistently funny or interesting enough to match up to their masterworks. Films like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Oh Brother Where Art Thou lift us up where we belong. Burn After Reading makes you chuckle every five minutes or so. Not enough, not enough. The brothers are a victim of their own genius. They've set the expectation and it can't be unset. This is why Intolerable Cruelty and The Lady Killers come off so poorly. If Yo-Yo Ma switched to the pan flute you wouldn't pat him on the back. You'd scowl. An evil scowl. The kind of scowl that says, "C'mon Yo-Yo, you're better than this."
Time to take this review home. I'll address the three different Coen types directly. If you're a Coen aficionado you're probably seeing this no matter what and you'll probably be fine with it. If you're one of the people who aren't/weren't aware of the Coens besides No Country for Old Men then you probably won't get much out of their return to the comic vein. If you're the sort who has never understood the Coen catalogue then don't look for enlightenment with this one. This is a straight middle-of-the-road Coen effort, neither soaring with the eagles nor mingling with the dregs.