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Burn After Reading (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 10, 2022

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading


Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Brad Pitt, David Rasche, JK Simmons, Olek Krupa, Michael Countryman, Kevin Sussman  and Dermot Mulroney.

Screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.

Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.

Distributed by Focus Features.  96 minutes.  Rated R.

You have to give the Coen Brothers credit – they are certainly adamant in their determination to not play to public perceptions and feel an almost obsessive need to change things up regularly, even when it may not be the ideal commercial move.

On the surface of course, Burn After Reading is as potentially marketable as the brothers ever get.  After all, it’s a spy comedy starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt.  However, it is still an odd way to follow up last year’s acclaimed comeback film, the quirky modern melodrama of No Country For Old Men.

Truth is, Joel and Ethan have always flip-flopped from downbeat noir to goofy comedy, going back to their first two films – Blood Simple followed by Raising Arizona.  Sometimes they even did it in the same film – Fargo was a comedy woven together with tragedy, incompetence and violence.  Even the Coens’ lightest comedies are usually punctuated by occasional bursts of shocking violence.  And their darkest films always have a quirky sense of humor.

If you have seen a Coen comedy before, the goofy vibe of Burn After Reading will not be much of a surprise to you – though if you are just catching up to them through Old Men you may find yourself a bit confused.  Coen Brothers comedies tend to be very broad and sort of cartoonish, and Burn After Reading follows suit.

It is a tale of government spying and incompetence in which the rot is so deep that you wonder how anything ever gets done.  (Come to think of it, this is sadly way too prescient in the current political atmosphere).  In fact, this film captures the spy-agency-as-total-incompetents vibe of the old sitcom Get Smart much better than the movie version of that series earlier this year.

Of course, the people on the outside are no better – they are stupid, goofy, greedy and unable to comprehend the depth of the trouble they are courting.

John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a volatile operative who is removed from his job, perhaps due to politics, perhaps due to a drinking problem.  His marriage to a frigid businesswoman (Tilda Swinton) was already on the rocks, she is in the middle of an affair with another former-spook-turned-hired-muscle (George Clooney), a married man with a slight lothario problem.

When a disk full of what seems to be state secrets shows up at a Washington gym, a knuckleheaded trainer (Brad Pitt) and an insecure aging instructor (Frances McDormand) try to blackmail Cox for its return.  The audience knows that what they have is nearly worthless, but it still sets into motion a series of connections and eventually deadly circumstances.

Like most Coen movies, Burn After Reading has a timelessness.  Sometimes it seems to be taking place in the present day, sometimes in the past.  There are some distinctly current political jabs, yet the storyline is also charmingly old-fashioned. These people are so out of touch that they still consider the Russians to be the epitome of global threat.  (Which will undoubtedly please McCain supporters…)

Most of it seems a little too coincidental, the characters are not overly believable and most of our main characters’ fates are decided off-camera.  However, Burn After Reading has a certain-go-for broke charm.  And a bit part by amazing character actor JK Simmons as a baffled, bureaucratic FBI director is worth the price of admission alone.

Burn After Reading is certainly a kind of odd film, but it is also an entertaining one.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: September 8, 2008.

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