Burn After Reading Review

(3.5 STARS)

There are two types of Coen Brothers films—ones that examine human nature and consequence and others that are just utterly absurd. Burn After Reading, like The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona, falls squarely into the latter category. It’s a film about incomprehensibly dumb people doing incomprehensibly dumb things. None of it makes any sense to a remotely intelligent human being, but it’s a blast watching it unfold.

Unlike most Coen films, this one takes place in the present—Washington D.C. to be precise. There, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) has been given his walking papers by his superiors at the CIA. Discouraged, he decided to take some time off to find himself and write his memoir. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is driven up a wall by this news, but she takes solace in the fact that she intends to divorce her husband and shack up with ex-secret service agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry, however, is a womanizer, and prowls the Internet looking for dates. His latest catch is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), an employee at Hard Bodies gym, who happens to be very insecure about her own body. She can’t afford the plastic surgeries she so desperately wants, but one day, she comes across an opportunity. When her co-worker, Chad (Brad Pitt), finds some “secret CIA shit,” aka Osbourne’s unfinished memoir, they blackmail him.

What happens from there is just too ridiculous for words. Most of these characters think they’re involved in a James Bond-style situation, yet no one really seems to care about the so-called sensitive material. Two scenes in particular illustrate these characters’ thickness and self-centeredness: When Linda brings the disk to the Russians, and when Osbourne’s former boss (played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons) gets updated on the situation. No one in the know has any idea what these people are doing, why they’re doing it, and why they should care. But for Linda, Chad, Harry, and Osbourne, this is all a matter of life and death (and for some of them, it will mean death).

I also love the way the movie plays with your expectations. Just because these people are imbeciles, doesn’t mean we don’t expect something of substance to happen. And the Coens pounce on that. When we see Harry repeatedly in his basement building some contraption—and the intense spy music kicks up a notch—we expect it to be something of vital importance, not a—well, I’ll let you find out what it is for yourself…

It’s pretty clear that everyone in the cast is having a lot of fun. Brad Pitt, especially, appears to be in his element with friend George Clooney and a part that allows him to just ham it up as much as possible. Frances McDormand makes Linda especially stupid but oddly likeable. Clooney is his usual charming self. But the best of the cast is John Malkovich, whose profanity-laden tirades are some of the most enjoyable in recent memory.

I see why it’s easy to write Burn After Reading off, and I can also totally understand why people would not care for its out-there sensibilities. It’s a film that doesn’t take itself seriously one iota, yet its characters take every moment so seriously. That contradiction gives the film a very odd and unique style of humor. It took me multiple viewings to appreciate that, but now it holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite Coen comedies.

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