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Burn After Reading (2008)

DVD Cover (Focus Features)
Genres:
Comedy, Spy Comedy
Directors:
Ethan Coen Ethan Coen
Joel Coen Joel Coen
Starring:
George Clooney George Clooney
Frances McDormand Frances McDormand
Brad Pitt Brad Pitt
John Malkovich John Malkovich
Tilda Swinton Tilda Swinton

7.1 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by bluemeanie
Added: September 16, 2008
There are a lot of Coen Brothers films I absolutely love. And, George Clooney is one of my favorite actors working today. How odd that my two least favorite Coen Brothers films have been the ones starring George Clooney - "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Intolerable Cruelty". In both of those films, I thought Clooney was too over-the-top and not consistent with his character. I considered this to be the fault of the directors, and still do. Regardless, Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most original directors working today and their previous film, "No Country for Old Men", won them the added respect and the commercial success they deserved, even though I didn't really love that picture as much as everyone else. "Burn After Reading" is nothing like "No Country for Old Men". It's as different as "Lawrence of Arabia" was from "I Know What You Did Last Summer". The two films exist on separate cinematic plains, one a hard-nosed and gritty crime thriller and the other a quirky and offbeat comedy in the style of "Raising Arizona" or even "The Big Lebowski". You are not going to get a lot of answers in "Burn After Reading" and the ambiguity is what helps to drive the picture along. It's that slight confusion and pondering that makes "Burn After Reading" the best Coen Brothers film since "The Man Who Wasn't There". It's the excellent cast, pitch perfect direction and kinetic pacing that make "Burn After Reading" one of the best films of the year.

Let's see if I can explain any of the plot. John Malkovich stars as CIA Agent Osborne Cox. The film opens with Cox being told he is being demoted. We are never told why. Instead, he quits the agency and decides to become a stay-at-home husband and work on his memoirs. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) loathes this idea. In fact, she has been plotting a secret divorce from him for a while now, all the time having an affair with U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who has a strange fascination with meeting women online. On the other side of town, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) desperately wants enough plastic surgery to transform her appearance. As she says, "I've got as far as I can with this body". When her co-worker, Chad (Brad Pitt) comes across a disk containing what they believe to be secret CIA files, the two hatch a plan to blackmail the owner of the disk, Osborne Cox, into getting enough money to pay for Linda's surgery. J.K. Simmons and David Rasche co-star as two CIA officials trying to make heads or tails of the situation; and Richard Jenkins as the manager of Hardbodies Gym, where Linda and Chad work. Most of the film deals with Linda and Chad thinking they know more than they actually do, and Harry hitting the town with just about every single woman in the entire film. These are all eccentric, colorful characters who all connect in some strange way - all tied to a former CIA agent with a midlife crisis.

There is a lot going on in this picture - if you blink, you might miss something. The Coen Brothers are in rare comedic form here. What they're so good at doing is letting the actors work the material and letting the actors extract the humor. Everyone is up to the task here, even the most minor of supporting characters. On the whole, this might be the best cast Coen Brothers film yet, in terms of both the quality of consistency of the performers. Frances McDormand never seems more at home that when she's in a Coen Brothers film and she is flawless here as Linda, the only person in the film is just pathetic enough for the audience to empathize. George Clooney and Brad Pitt have so much fun in their respective roles and it's so nice to see them playing outside their typical comfort zones - these are two strong comedic performances. John Malkovich was my favorite in the film and he handles the material so expertly - I don't understand why he doesn't receive more roles like this anymore. And, as mentioned before, even the smaller roles shine. Richard Jenkins, as always, is both hysterical and touching in a role that he makes the most of with each and every scene. J.K. Simmons and David Rasche steal the show on many occasion as the two CIA officials who don't know what to make of the situation at all. If there was one slight disappointment, it was probably Tilda Swinton, who seems slightly out of her element here. She definitely seems like she is having the least amount of fun out of everyone else in the ensemble.

And something else I appreciated was that "Burn After Reading" didn't give its entire plot away in the trailer. I am sick and tired of sitting through three minute trailers that give every aspect of the movie away, plot secrets and all. It was nice to watch a film and be totally surprised. That said, if you know the Coen Brothers, you can kind of piece together how the story is going to fall into place. When a character dies, you kind of see it coming a mile away. That doesn't mean it doesn't work and that doesn't mean it's a bad thing, but once you've become familiar with the certain style of a filmmaker or filmmakers, you can start piecing those things together from an early vantage. My favorite sequence in the entire films involves the great John Malkovich and a hatchet. Just watching Malkovich walk down a dock in a bath robe carrying a hatchet is an image I won't soon forget. I also enjoyed the ending of the film, which a lot of others have taken issue with. If you remember the beginning of the film and you've been paying attention to and understanding what has been going on, then the ending of the film should come as no surprise to you whatsoever. It's that same ambiguity and 'stand back and watch' approach to the characters that made "Burn After Reading" so memorable for me. I might be in the minority, but this was one of their best films.

Watching "Burn After Reading" made me remember the way I felt when I first saw "Raising Arizona" as a small child, a film I was fascinated with before I even knew who the Coen Brothers were or really anything about film at all. It reminded me of how I felt when I first saw "The Big Lebowski". There's that special kind of feeling whenever you watch a Coen Brothers film for the first time - hell, even "The Ladykillers" gave it to me in some small way. "Burn After Reading" is not going to win any awards like "No Country for Old Men", though I would definitely suggest both Brad Pitt and John Malkovich for Best Actor In A Supporting Role. It will end up another one of those Coen Brothers films that flies under the radar. Luckily, however, it also gave Joel and Ethan Coen their first number one film at the box office. "Burn After Reading" is either going to make you smile and remember for a long time or make you cringe and forget it instantly. It might not be your type of humor and it might not be your type of ending, but it's still a damned good film from two damned good directors. And, if you don't agree - I'll get my hatchet.

9/10.
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Tristan #1: Tristan - added 09/16/2008, 04:07 PM
Loved this one. One of the best movies I've seen this year.

10/10
Ginose #2: Ginose - added 09/23/2008, 02:50 AM
One of the best Coen films thus far. Absolutely hillarious from start to finish... even when it does "flesh-out" entirely and tries to come down to Earth from the wonderful world of comedy it stuck itself in. Not the best covmedy of the year, but definately making my top five.
8.9/10
Griffinheart #3: Griffinheart - added 08/09/2009, 07:39 PM
I found this horribly dull and slow moving. 5/10
Lucid Dreams #4: Lucid Dreams - added 08/11/2009, 01:49 AM
I thought this movie was well done and it was about time for Brad Pitt to do something different other then those damn Ocean movies, or Mr./Mrs Smith crap.
9/10
Griffinheart #5: Griffinheart - added 08/11/2009, 08:15 PM
I'm just not a fan of Pitt's acting when he's given a "dumb" character as he was in this movie or with his Friends cameo (though the dialogue he was given on Friends was pretty terrible from the start). Pitt seems to do better when he's allowed to act "cool", at least in my opinion.
Danington138 #6: Danington138 - added 09/08/2014, 07:30 PM
"I KNOW WHO YOU ARE FUCKKKKKERRRRRR" is on the cover, amazing.
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