I was a little nervous going into this one. Some of the reviews I saw were a little tepid, and I was afraid this might be another Intolerable Cruelty or Ladykillers. Movies that had moments of Coen Bros. genius, but didn't really feel like their other work.
Fortunately Burn After Reading fits easily into the realm of some of my favorite Coen movies. Maybe not quite up to the level of Lebowski or O Brother, I'd say it's closer to The Man Who Wasn't There or The Hudsucker Proxy (although not nearly as stylized visually).
It wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny as I expected, until the second half. The comedy is definitely back-loaded. But the first half is never boring. The Coens take their time setting up all the characters and plot threads. And when they begin to pay off, they pay off big time.
Burn After Reading is similar to The Man Who Wasn't There in that you have a hard time finding anyone in the movie to root for. The one truly sympathetic character comes to what is probably the worst fate of anyone in the movie. The Coens are harsh creators. Usually a movie filled with characters you can't identify with would be unwatchable, but under the Coens' direction it works.
The story is joyfully unpredictable, with one moment that genuinely shocked me and another that hilariously belies the audience's expectation (George Clooney's invention). I watched the movie always gleefully anxious to see what happened next, and was never disappointed, right up to the final understated denouement that sums up the film's meaning (or lack thereof).