BURN AFTER READING (2008) / Comedy-Drama

Running Length: 96 minutes
MPAA Classification:
R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence.

Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Marvel
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

After their Oscar-winning crime-drama, No Country for Old Men, you’d hardly expect for the Coen brothers’ next project to be something like Burn After Reading, and you’d probably expect something a whole lot better. But while there are a fair amount of comparisons that can be made between the two, both films are so drastically different in the way that they are made that it’s as if you’re seeing an entirely different pair of directors. Is there anything that these guys can’t do?

The plot synopsis is best kept to minimum, for the story takes so many different twists and turns that by the end, it’s almost something entirely different than what it was when the movie started. I couldn’t possibly give you a decent summary without spoiling any of the surprise, and there’s a lot of them.

We begin with arguably the film’s funniest scene, as CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job after being demoted due to his incessant drinking problem. This in return gives him the inspiration to write a long-awaited memoir about his life and career, but when he divulges this information to his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), she is not at all pleased.

It turns out in fact that Katie has been having an affair with an ex-secret agent, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), and sees her husband’s recent job dismissal as an opportunity to file for divorce. Harry, on the other hand, is torn between Katie and his wife, Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). He also maintains a steady online dating profile, which is how he meets Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a gym employee who has been trying to raise money for cosmetic surgery because her job “demands it.” Her chance comes when she and a dimwitted associate, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), mistake a copy of Cox’s unpublished memoirs for sensitive CIA material and plot to sell it to the Russians.

Now, that is only the introduction to Burn After Reading, mind you. The Coen brothers, as they are one to do, continuously thicken the plot as the film progresses, with their script taking on a sort of bipolar mentality. One scene will have you busting a gut while another will you have you morbidly shocked. Their execution is admirable; they never seem to take anything too seriously. The characters aren’t necessarily real people as much as they are caricatures. Everything about them is odd, from their last names to the outfits that they wear. (Hell, the Coens even managed to make handsome men like Brad Pitt and George Clooney look like complete doofuses.) Only a handful of them actually have the same thought pattern that a normal human being would have.

A lot of people cite this as one of the film’s downfalls, complaining that there is just too much stupidity everywhere. I, for one, think that it’s hilarious. There is so much comic brilliance in the Coens’ script. They take the absurd nature of their characters to such extreme measures that it’s almost satirical. Even the bleakest of moments (and there are a couple instances of startling brutality) are somehow made hysterical. These characters are so moronic that you can’t help but laugh at the situations they get themselves into.

Of all of the performances in Burn After Reading, I found the best (and funniest) one to come from Brad Pitt. I don’t think that I’ve seen him ever really play a funny guy, so it’s nice to something different for a change. His comic manner is so subtle, such as a scene where he waits in the car outside of Cox’ townhouse and slurps on a smoothie, and he’s the character that most will find their laughter directed at.

Compared to No Country for Old Men and other Coen works like The Big Lebowski or FargoBurn After Reading isn’t all that great, but it’s still pretty good. The Coens have a knack for creating these off-beat comedies that are so original and unique and I always look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2010 Stephen Earnest

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