Burn After Reading (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Burn After Reading Poster

After watching the Coen Brothers spend years mowing their way through genres and upending conventions, one question comes to mind: Is there anything these guys can't do. Common wisdom suggests "no" and, after winning Oscars early this year for No Country for Old Men, expectations have gone from modest to high. However, those anticipating another searing drama/thriller with Burn After Reading may be disappointed. The Coens, as is often their style, have elected to go in another direction. This is a thriller with a high quotient of comedic elements or, if you prefer, a comedy with a high quotient of thriller elements. As is always the case with a production of Joel & Ethan, it's difficult to classify, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable.

The movie's plot involves so many threads and contains so many intertwined layers that it effectively defeats any summary with fewer than about 1000 words. So I'll set the stage and let the movie unveil its own secrets. To the thudding bass of resonant Carter Burwell score, the film opens by swooping down from above into Langley and introducing us to C.I.A. agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), who is about to quit in lieu of being demoted. This displeases his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), to no end. Meanwhile, her lover, ex-secret service agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), is trying to decide whether to request a divorce from his wife to be with Katie. Harry also has a penchant for trolling the Internet for dates. That's how he meets a gym worker named Linda Litzke (France McDormand), who needs money for some cosmetic surgical procedures. With her accomplice, Chad (Brad Pitt), she figures out a way to get it: sell leaked C.I.A. secrets to the Russians – secrets that come from a copy of Osborne's unpublished memoirs.

The Coens, as is their way, keep piling it on, deepening the plot and tossing in some shocks that are all the more effective because of the matter-of-fact manner in which they are delivered. (Remember Josh Brolin's death in No Country? It's that sort of thing.) The screenplay never takes itself seriously, with comedic moments strewn about haphazardly. Some are merely amusing, some are clever, and some are downright hilarious. Perhaps the three funniest scenes are a pair of conversations between C.I.A. honchos played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, and a scene where George Clooney's paranoia has him bug-eyed and primed to flee.

By employing members of their extended acting family as well as talented "newcomers" to the Coen universe, Joel & Ethan ensure there's not a weak performance to be found. George Clooney, who does his best work for the Coens and Soderbergh, turns down the charm and enhances the sleeze in a role that certainly fits the clichéd "cast against type" description. Brad Pitt primps and poses as a personal trainer who likely would be less interested in Angelina Jolie than her brother. Frances McDormand gets to do a little screwball work alongside Clooney, Pitt, and Richard Jenkins. Tilda Swinton acts all ice bitchy, like she's still under the influence of her role in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And John Malkovich does what John Malkovich does best - act weird before eventually losing it. All that's missing from Act III is the wood chipper, and one suspects Malkovich's character might have one somewhere on the premises.

The tone is a little like Fargo, although Burn After Reading isn't as nuanced. As comedies go, it's a definite notch below Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and even Intolerable Cruelty. So, in the Brothers' oeuvre, this would have to be considered a minor work, and it may look even more insignificant in the wake of No Country for Old Men. But if there's one rule that must be applied here, it's that lesser Coen works are often the equal to superior films by other directors. Burn After Reading likely won't be a major Oscar contender for 2009, but that doesn't mean it won't offer a hell of a good time in theaters toward the end of 2008.

Burn After Reading (United States, 2008)

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins
Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2008-09-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1