Movie Review – Burn After Reading

Super-dark black comedy from the Cohen Brothers, Burn After Reading will appeal to many, but not all. If you appreciate the darker comedic stylings of the Cohens, you’ll probably love this regardless, but more casual viewers are advise that a level of caution is required. It’s complex, at times hilarious, shocking and ultimately, a little perplexing. But don’t let that stop you from embarking on this mad journey yourself, and see what you make of it.


– Summary –

Director : Joel & Ethan Coen
Year Of Release : 2008
Principal Cast : George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovitch, Richard Jenkins, JK Simmons
Approx Running Time : 96 Minutes
Synopsis: When supposedly secret CIA files are found by a couple of dim-witted gym employees, they set about trying to blackmail the owner for their return. Unsuccessful, they then turn to handing the information to the Russians in return for money.
What we think : Super-dark black comedy from the Cohen Brothers, Burn After Reading will appeal to many, but not all. If you appreciate the darker comedic stylings of the Cohens, you’ll probably love this regardless, but more casual viewers are advise that a level of caution is required. It’s complex, at times hilarious, shocking and ultimately, a little perplexing. But don’t let that stop you from embarking on this mad journey yourself, and see what you make of it.


This is a horrendously hard film to review: I lack the verbal tenacity to adequately describe another top-tier film effort from the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, the directorial team which gave us O Brother Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, No Country For Old Men, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, among others. It’s both a dazzling tour-de-force from the stellar cast, and a dramatic void seeking some sort of validation: the brutal violence, and the often nasty imbecile qualities our cast are imbued with, can leave a sour taste in one’s mouth, were one to not fully appreciate the skill involved in this kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie with a multitude of characters all intertwining with each other’s story-arcs, often without knowing, and all with a very lonely soul in the center.

And then he jabbed his finger at me, like this!!

Frances McDormand plays Linda, an aging gym instructor who doesn’t have the right level of insurance to pay for a bunch of surgeries to “tighten” her body up. Brad Pitt is Chuck, a dim-witted fellow gym instructor, a man with delusions of adequacy and a penchant for his iPod: both he and Linda team up when they discover a disc of CIA secret information has been dropped inadvertently inside their gym. CIA agent Osbourne, played by a foul mouthed John Malkovitch, has recently quit his post over being removed from a high level assignment, and is currently trying to write his memoirs. Osbourne’s wife, Katie, is an ice-cold manipulative bitch (played really well by Tolda Swinton, who’s making a name for herself in this kind of character portrayal…) and is screwing Treasury agent Walter (George Clooney, once more in top bewildered form), and is seeking a divorce from her husband. It seems Katie, at the request of her lawyer, has stolen a bunch of personal files from her husband in order to collect big in the divorce, but the lawyers secretary has lost them (in the gym she goes to…. doh!), leading Linda and Chuck to believe they can extort money for the return of said files for a considerable amount of cash – the amount of cash Linda needs for her surgeries. Clooney, who’s not only sleeping with Katie but a slew of other women as well (including, eventually, Linda), has devised a sex-toy for the open market to make his millions, but is also on the road to divorce with his own wife. Osborne isn’t about to be extorted, so when push comes to shove, Linda and Chuck make the “brave” decision to try and peddle the “secret” files to the Russians, lobbing at the embassy in Washington to divulge state secrets.

Later, when the Earth had crumbled to nothing, his tiny little tape recorder would be all that was left.

Burn After Reading is, at first glance, a pretty tightly wound comedy/thriller from the Coens, but I think there’s more to this than meets the eye. While my Optimus Prime analogy has already run out of puff, Burn After Reading is full of subtle, nuanced performances and screenwriting, from the egregious Malkovitch and his constant use of the F-word, to Brad Pitt’s dullard Chuck, to Clooney’s eye-twitching repeat performance of a man similar in character to Ulysses in O Brother Where Art Thou?. The entire cast, almost without exception, are superb in this film, each fidgeting through their various mannerisms and personality traits with the accomplished skill of seasoned performers. McDormand, in particular, has the troubled job of being both a sympathetic character, and one who does some pretty selfish things – her quest for her surgeries makes her do hitherto unthinkable things, while her partner in crime, Chuck, is oblivious to just how stupidly idiotic the plan he concocts actually is. Clooney’s done this kind of thing before, but watching him in this feels like wearing a pair of comfortable slippers. JK Simmons is wonderfully droll as the CIA Chief who is having all the going’s-on reported to him, and he brightens the screen up every time he’s on.

Why Stanley Tucci showed up as that serial killer from The Lovely Bones, she never knew…

The script, by the Coens, sizzles with delicious dialogue and a wonderfully playful sense of humor, even if that humor is as dark as the ace of spades. The counterpoint between the Washington elite (the CIA et al) and the plebs (the gym-junkies), as well as social commentary on divorce and relationships (more of the former than the latter) is comic gold, albeit hidden a minefield of dark sarcasm. The Coens construct this film almost effortlessly, and the film bubbles along quite nicely for its entire run-time – there’s no sense of urgency to tell this story, the script allows the characters (and the actors) to inhabit the movie and story, and as a result, we’re more emotionally attached once the somewhat bloody (and perfunctory) conclusion is meted out. I want to explain more, but to do so would involve some juicy spoilers, so I won’t. Suffice to say, Burn After Reading has a bunch of hidden delights within its story, some vignettes that will make many a clip-show in future years, and some dialogue bristling with self-aware parody. In point: a moment between Katie and her divorce lawyer is particularly sodden with emphasis, a sort of wake-up call to modern society of just how mean, inhumane and self-centered we’ve become as a race.

It wasn’t right, but they had to laugh at The Notebook.

The film does contain a degree of graphic violence, but its not without some merit to the action – but be warned, those who are squeamish might be a little put off in a key scene involving a weapon or two. Still, realism is the order of the day, and while the characters might be overly simplistic to a certain degree, they’re by no means empty shells spouting meaningless dialogue: this film crackles with a real-world believability that only just stands this side of the fantastical. I’ve got to hand it to the Coens – they’ve once more crafted an eminently watchable, highly entertaining and often snarky film to add to their oeuvre. Considering their rate of success with each film, not only in terms of growing financial gain but creative integrity and film-making craft, the Coens should rightly be regarded as a Hollywood treasure. Burn After Reading is an excellent film, but not to everyone’s tastes. The intellectual dialogue and heady, dark subject matter, will alienate those looking for a souffle of a film – this film plays more like a German Pork Knuckle, taking plenty of time and energy to absorb. The fact that nothing blows up in it, or the fact that there aren’t any lengthy gun battles or special effects, will probably ensure only those interested in quality film-making will see it, so I guess if you’re reading this review, you’ve done just that or you’re about to. Can I advise: do so as soon as possible, if you haven’t already.


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4 thoughts on “Movie Review – Burn After Reading

  1. You know, I was sure I hated "Burn After Reading" the first time I saw it for lots of dumb reasons: it didn't hold a candle to "Raising Arizona" or "Big Lebowski," etc. Then I watched it again and found Brad Pitt absolutely hysterical. Frances McDormand never lets me down, either.

    1. If there's a word to describe this film (and everything the Cohen's produce as well) it's "quirky". You need to watch Burn After Reading with a certain mindset, otherwise the humor may be lost on you… would you agree?

  2. I enjoyed this more the second time I saw it. But the fact I watched it again shows that I quite liked the film the first time too. I think two things make it stand out, and they are both uniquely Coen-esque: the first is the characters, all so brilliantly realised, unique and different from one another; the second is the wonderfully odd moments that come out of nowhere – [spoilers are coming] Clooney's sex machine which is built up to like a Russian spy creating a deadly biological weapon in a Bond movie, Francis McDormand's worst date still ending up with her having sex with the guy, and the look on Brad Pitt's face just before Clooney (again) blows his brains out. It's just all so darkly funny.

    1. I have to agree, the build-up to that sex-machine is one of the films' high points. Laugh out loud funny….

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