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Burn After Reading
6 reviews

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Movie Details

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Directed By
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Written By:
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Sussman, David Rasche, David Huddleston, Lenny Venito, Logan Kulick, Tim Miller, Kimberly Dorsey, Patrick Michael Strange, Matt Gulbranson, Scot Cregan, Devin Rumer, Matt Walton, Hamilton Willis, Bill Massof, Eric Richardson, Hamilton Willis

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Burn After Reading (2008)
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Movie Review by Jarrod
September 13th, 2008

'Burn After Reading' arrives on the heels of No Country for Old Men, which won four Oscars and was, at least in my view, the best Coen brothers film since Fargo. Returning to the genre that got them started in the industry, this latest effort from the Coens is a black comedy, an absurd and very funny one, with a healthy dose of violence, and the boldness to kill off major characters unpredictably. The plot is complex, and few could guess the final outcome, though to follow and keep track of every little detail would be an arduous, and unnecessary, task. The Coens are intelligent and compelling storytellers, but here they do not pursue any large or meaningful ideas, and instead allow their extraordinary cast to have loads of fun with roles designed to be frivolous and silly, even while projecting the illusion of seriousness. John Malkovich is Osborne Cox, a CIA agent who is ready to quit when faced with the possibility of demotion; he is preparing to write his memoirs, in which he could potentially reveal government secrets.

He possesses a disc that contains numerous codes and files, intended to be strictly confidential. This disc falls into the hands of a perky gym worker named Chad (Brad Pitt), who shares the information with his colleague, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Linda and Chad decide to hold the disc for ransom, and then contact Osborne, hoping that he will offer them a good price to get it back. Linda is motivated to do this primarily because she is desperate to raise the money she needs to fund a series of cosmetic surgical procedures that will presumably make her look younger and more attractive. This relatively simple scheme balloons into an uncontrollable fiasco, as more people get involved, including Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), from the Treasury Department, Linda's boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), and Cox's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). Cox refuses to cooperate with Linda, but there are some interested Russian buyers. This brings in Cox's superior (J.K. Simmons) and additional guys from the CIA to monitor the situation.

Cox is chronically bitter and unhappy, both in his personal and professional life, the former made uncomfortable by the cold and uptight Katie, the latter ruined by accusations of alcoholism and general incompetence that are probably true, even if Cox contests their validity. Cox is utterly clueless, prides himself on being smarter than he actually is, which allows him to fit right in with everyone else, especially Chad, a fitness-obsessed doofus with an I-Pod addiction. Malkovich earns chuckles merely from the way he pronounces memoir. Harry enters into a relationship with Linda, while being simultaneously involved with Katie, though he is already married to the sweet-natured Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). Harry had considered divorcing Sandy to be with Katie, and he enjoys picking up dates on the Internet, so there is no hope that he could ever be monogamous.

The Coens create a well-woven tapestry of complicated scenarios and then present most of them are being entirely superfluous. They do provide a solid opportunity, however, for the Coens to inject certain scenes with cynicism and satire, satire focusing on human stupidity, superficiality, and self-centeredness, as well as espionage movies more broadly (the Russians are a conscious stand-in for the Soviets/Communists of the past, whose spies allegedly saturated every level of society), and even taking jabs at the Washington political system and its bureaucratic structure. I may be reading more deeply into this than the Coens intend, but nonetheless, this is a remarkably entertaining film, with clever, idiosyncratic humor that mature audiences can appreciate.

The first-rate cast is uniformly excellent, with Clooney serving up what seems to be a parody of his Oscar-winning role in Syriana, which the beard he sports is sure to remind many of. He is suave and charming, impossible to dislike, though he engages in dishonest and ultimately disrespectful behavior towards women. McDormand, as usual, is a delight; Linda is more sympathetic than we might initially believe, and we can get a sense of her sadness and low self-esteem. Pitt and Malkovich may earn more laughs than anybody. Simmons, Jenkins, and especially Swinton are all superb. Shot on location in Washington D.C., the slick and stylish cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki makes terrific use of famous area landmarks, and captures the nation's capital very invitingly.

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