Burn After Reading (2008)

Comedy, Crime, Drama
Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich
A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it.
With Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers have crafted another clever comedy/thriller with an outlandish plot and memorable characters.
  • Focus Features Company:
  • R Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 12 Sep 2008 Released:
  • 21 Dec 2008 DVD Release:
  • $60.3M Box office:

All subtitles:



Trailer:

The Coens' funniest film since "The Big Lebowski"5/10
I'm not the only one to notice the pattern in the Coens' filmography: "Blood Simple." was followed by "Raising Arizona", "Fargo" by "The Big Lebowski", and "No Country for Old Men" by "Burn After Reading". The main concern one had about this film is whether it would be an "Intolerable Cruelty" or a "Big Lebowski" for the Coens. Let's put it this way: the reviews have been mixed, especially from major mainstream media critics. Guess what other Coen comedy received mixed reviews and was accused of being a somewhat tired mess? Yep, "The Big Lebowski".

The Coens' sense of humor is very distinctive, and I'm not talking about stuff like "Intolerable Cruelty" (this one the mainstream media liked, go figure) and "The Ladykillers", which featured numerous commercial concessions. I'm talking about the vicious, cruel, misanthropic farce that gets self-important critics' knickers in a twist. Describing "Burn After Reading" as a screwball spy farce makes it sound much more "Austin Powers" than it is. There is a lot of silliness, but the sort of silliness one finds in a Howard Hawks comedy, not in most comedies that have been made recently. It's a screwball comedy but a pretty dark one.

This is most certainly an acquired taste. It is not going to go down well with people who can't laugh at murder, things going terribly wrong for innocent people, or the Cones' trademark dialogue that pops up even in 'serious' movies like "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men". However, "Burn After Reading" was seemingly tailor-made for my cruel sense of humor, as I found it to be easily the most inspired comedy script in a long time. It's a conspiracy espionage thriller with no stakes, nothing to fight over, a bunch of complete fools and idiots caught in the middle of it ("a league of morons" if you listen to John Malkovich's character), and disastrous consequences for just about everyone. Take out the jokes and you could have a tragedy but as it stands this is the funniest movie the Coens have made since "The Big Lebowski", if not the best, and that includes "O Brother, Where Art Thou?".

One really shouldn't know anything about the plot or how it unfolds prior to seeing it, as this is a film which is far more intricately-plotted than most critics are giving it credit for. The basic concept is that Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt's characters come across a disc they think contains top secret intelligence. What follows is, as described above, a thriller with no stakes and a bunch of idiots. It's one of those movies where you really shouldn't be laughing (for ethical reasons) but are, and it will have you laughing through your disapproval for basically the entirety of the film after the opening fifteen minutes or so, which are rough in comparison to the rest of the film, and to be honest the only thing that keeps this film from being absolutely brilliant and the Coens' best movie since "Lebowski". Just don't go in expecting a movie that looks as beautiful as many of their movies do- Lubezki is no Deakins, at least not based on his work here, and the Coens are very clearly attempting to emulate in many ways the look of the sort of thriller they're basing this on. It's functional, well-shot, and well-directed, but the writing and acting are the main attractions here.

Of course, "Burn After Reading" will be dismissed as having little worth and for being a disposable farce by many. Well, if only they knew how hard it is to do comedy well. I'd reckon this was harder to write than the (admittedly tremendous) "No Country for Old Men", which was adapted from a novel that might as well have been a screenplay if formatted correctly. The movie may not start brilliantly (not that it isn't good even early on), but once the Coens start firing on all cylinders they never stop, and the dream cast certainly doesn't either (Brad Pitt has a smaller role than most cast members here, but he is absolutely brilliant in the role), showing tremendous comic skill that few would have guessed most of them had. The final scene may very well be one of the best I have seen in a long, long time.

"What a clusterf-ck!", indeed.

9/10
More "Big Lebowski" Than "Intolerable Cruelty" -- thankfully5/10
BURN AFTER READING is laugh-out-loud funny. It's more "Big Lebowski" than "Intolerable Cruelty," though there are wisps of both, but "Burn" is not quite up to Lebowski's genius. Still, it is very, very funny and loads of fun.

From the opening moments, the Coens' latest movie -- a spy-thriller spoof -- hurls the viewer on a hilarious romp through Absurd-land. What better place to set such a story than Washington, DC?

The story involves a demoted government worker (John Malkovich) who finds himself the target of an extortion scheme by two gym workers, riotously played by Frances McDormand (a would-be gym bunny if only she could afford some plastic surgery) and Brad Pitt (a high-energy, arm-thrusting, hip-shaking fitness trainer-cum-"good Samaritan" who lands himself way in over his head). The romp soon turns dark.

As usual, the Coens' dialog is a real treat. When a co-worker points to Malkovich's alcohol problems as a reason for his demotion, Malkovich retorts, "You're a Mormon. Next to you we all have a drinking problem." And as usual in Coen-land, there's a clash between high and low brow. Malkovich's pronunciations of "mem-wahhh" for "memoir" is a hoot, and his correction of Pitt's mistaken "report" for "rapport" propels a conflict between classes and types -- symbols of a society in trouble, whose priorities are askew.

As in the Coen brothers' 1987 box-office hit RAISING ARIZONA, obsessions fuel the plot, though this time it's body (not baby) obsession. McDormand is hellbent on getting expensive elective surgery to "reinvent" herself. Pitt is a workout addict, who can barely stop moving long enough to think straight. And George Clooney, who can only stop talking when it's time to go running or jump into bed with someone, plays a G-man fixated on sex. Notions of "intelligence" and all that the word connotes (along with its antonyms) mix into the film's dark comedic brew of unintended consequences.

Where does it go? I don't want to give away any of the twists to answer that question in depth. But I would disagree with the critics who claim it doesn't go anywhere. The movie and its over-the-top, needless violence show how secretive missions even by bumbling know-nothings (whose only knowledge of undercover ops seems to come from spy flicks) can have disastrous outcomes. Secrets in Washington? Sure sounds like a topic we should all be better versed in.

- Erica Rowell Author: The Brothers Grim: The Films of Ethan and Joel Coen http://www.amazon.com/Brothers-Grim-Films-Ethan-Joel/dp/0810858509
A Bright American Farce8/10
Nobody is quite there in this new bright farce by the Coen brothers. The plot is a smart excuse for a movie about nothing but appearing to be about a lot of things. Going backwards and forwards at the same time. Talk about "The Russians?" or planning to write a memoir. Brad Pitt is priceless and the innocence of his character is so believable that I wondered how many more surprises this actor has up his sleeve. He is a joy. George Clooney is also terrific and the Coens move through their crossed purposes with speed and elegance. I was totally immerse in their universe even if I didn't quite care what was going on. John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and the unnerving Tilda Swinton complete the package of this movie that feels as if it was made for the sheer pleasure of it.
I hate to say this, but "Meh."5/10
I have heard it said that a good film has no bad scenes and four good ones. Well, 'Burn After Reading' has no bad scenes... and no really good ones either.

The film was consistently amusing, and kept me interested enough to want to see what happens next. The ending was not predictable, nor was it entirely unsatisfactory. Never once did the film insult my intelligence or presume upon me to care for a character without providing sufficient reason. These are all good things. But while we're talking about things this film never did, never once did this "comedy" amuse me enough to actually consider it "funny".

Now, that's not good at all.

As has been pointed out in the consistently funny comic 'Calvin and Hobbes', there is more to 'good' than the mere absence of evil. So while, unlike almost every other film I've ever seen, 'Burn After Reading' has no flaws or niggly little bits where I'm left thinking how I'd do things differently, it doesn't have any particularly good bits either, and has ultimately left me underwhelmed.

It's like we've had some sort of yin-yang trade-off, where by removing the bad we have unwittingly eliminated the good, stranding the film in limbo for eternity.

So, did 'Burn After Reading' amuse me? Yes, I was amused, though I never once laughed out loud.

Do I regret seeing it? Not really. It kept me interested for 90 minutes, which is more than I can say for a lot of other films out there.

Was it a good film? My feelings here are truly mixed, though ultimately I'd have to say "I don't think so".

I'm guessing that critics are going crazy over this film because it doesn't make any of the irritating mistakes that plague so many other films. The story is solid with no plot holes or overt cliches, the characters are well written and consistent, it never talks down to the audience, the acting is great and so is the directing.

Now, as a point of comparison I'd like you to consider 'Open Season'. This aimated film was flawed at many levels, from sluggish direction to uninspired writing and miscast actors. But in addition to this there were at least half a dozen really funny bits in it.

My point here is that while much of 'Open Season' was regrettable, at least I laughed six times. Which is six more times than I laughed during 'Burn After Reading'. As a result, I remember 'Open Season' much more fondly, despite it being the inferior film in almost every way.

In conclusion, 'Burn After Reading' just isn't exciting or funny enough to cut any sort of mustard, and so we have a film that a lot can be learned from, both in what to and not to do when making a film.

I mean, seriously. My prevailing feeling with regard to 'Burn After Reading' is one of apathy. That's never good.
Very funny adult comedy9/10
The point here is that this movie is for adults, with adult themes and adult situations. As with all Coen brother movies, there are going to be people who love it and people that hate it. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground. I loved this movie. It was entertaining, dark and very funny. I really liked "No Country for Old Men" but I have to say, "Burn After Reading" was a more enjoyable film for me. Some of the reviews here have said that the film rambles around pointlessly, without any clear direction; well I have to disagree, if you are paying attention and you are an adult, you should have no problem understanding what is going on. The best part of the movie is watching this great cast perform brilliantly with the odd-ball material they are given. They are all straight men for the Coen brother's antics. There is violence, bad language, and everyone is sleeping with everyone else, especially George Clooney. But the movie is very funny and while the rest of Hollywood seems to have lost there way, the Coen brothers continue to put out intelligent, entertaining and thought provoking material.