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Burn After Reading (2008)

A movie directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

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Bored After Watching?

  • Aug 16, 2010
I would call myself a fan of the Coen Brothers. A pretty big fan actually. Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are among my favourite films of all time, and I'm a huge admirer of their darker offerings like Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, No Country For Old Men and Blood Simple. Therefore, I sat down to watch Burn After Reading with great expectations. Those expectations even seemed justified by the clips I'd seen and the things I'd read about it. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The Coen's know how to handle a complex plot and Burn After Reading has no problems in that respect. Indeed, the plot is one of the films stronger aspects.
The story revolves around CIA worker Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who unceremoniously loses his job at the agency and begins writing his memoirs. Meanwhile, his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a philandering State Department marshal. A CD of information belonging to Osbourne Cox ends up in the hands of fitness center employees Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Information on the disc leads them to Cox, who they decide to extort money from in exchange for the disc. When Cox rejects their demands, they approach other possible interested parties. To sweeten the deal, they decide they need more of Cox's secrets to sell. Linda then has an encounter with Pfarrer, who becomes embroiled in the situation. As all this plays out, the CIA keeps watch. Oh, and there's a lot of internet dating.

The mixing of crime drama and farce is something the Coen Brothers are great at. On paper, Burn After Reading should have been every bit as good as The Big Lebowski or Fargo. However, those films had something this film doesn't: likable characters. In Burn After Reading, every character is either pathetic, idiotic or detestable, and as a result, it's hard to become engaged in the plot. I felt like an outsider, watching all this play out with no real emotional involvement or affinity to the characters, much like the CIA characters do in the film. Of course, that may have been the Coen's intention, and the ultimate punchline of the movie, but I found it rather alienating.

Another thing the Coen's do well is gathering great ensemble casts. There are lots of great actors in this film and they all perform brilliantly, but again, the trouble is that I didn't like any of their characters. This film has no Dude, no Marge Gunderson, no character too root for or empathise with.
Of all the performances in the movie, Brad Pitt was the standout for me. The role is somewhat of a departure for him, but he shows a real talent for comedy and slips into the Coen's quirky world with great ease. It's a shame his character (and his magnificent hair) wasn't given more screen-time.

One thing I really disliked about this film, and found extremely jarring, was the score. It was way too dramatic for the material; almost comically so. This may've been a deliberate move, but I didn't think it worked well at all.

This isn't a bad film by any means. The performances are great, the plot is cleverly constructed, there's some inspired dialogue, and it's laugh-out-loud funny in places. It does so many things right, and yet, I just found it all rather tiresome and unengaging. Much like Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading shows spark, but doesn't quite catch fire.

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August 17, 2010
This was disappointing for a Coen bros. feature but it had its good points. I would probably rate this one the same, and I so love that "chair" LOL! Nice one, Simon!
August 17, 2010
Cheers, William! You're right, "that chair" was hilarious, mainly because it was so unexpected. Definitely one the best bits in the film. :)
August 16, 2010
I agree with your assessment of this movie. It was just so-so. The whole plot ended up very twisted eventually, and I guess the dramatic musical score added to that, but my takeaway was mostly -- boredom. Great review, Simon!
August 17, 2010
Thanks, Debbie! I really wanted to like this one, but it left me a bit cold. I guess I'll have to watch The Big Lebowski for the 20th time to make up for it. :)
More Burn After Reading (2008 movie... reviews
review by . April 15, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
After a mid-career dip, the CB are back! Burn represents the second consecutive strong showing, coming on the heals of their best ever No Country for Old Men. Burn isn't their best ever, but it is a return to their roots, and to what made them good.    The BL (Before Lebowski) movies were a tour of the classic genres of the Great Age of cinema, centered around the theme of identity:    Blood Simple was a great noir debut about misunderstanding identity.  Raising …
review by . June 25, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
They say good things come in twos, and I can’t think of a more fitting justification for this platitude than the varied body of work that is the Coen brothers’ film repertoire. Time and time again, the duo has tickled our funny bones while offering that something extra for the finicky tastes of moviegoers whose palates desire a little “oomph”.      That being said,      I hated Burn After Reading.      I mean, I …
review by . July 14, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
A throw-away effort by the Coen Brothers, but Tilda Swinton takes the prize for unlikable funniness
If you enjoy sour shaggy dog stories told for the enjoyment of clever, sour people, you might like Burn After Reading...a shaggy dog story if there ever was one. It takes the easy target of Washington's shallow denizens and mixes them into the equally easy targets of CIA paranoia and serial infidelities. And all these denizens, with one possible exception, are either numbskull boobs or nasty boobs.       The Coens have given us not only a sour shaggy dog story, designed …
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Coen Brother's zany comic follow up to No Country For Old Men has wacky goins on in DC with an alcohalic and his frosty wife, a philanthripist and his ornery wife and two dim gym employees getting mixed up over a lame MacGuffin. Maybe not a classic, but worth watching once.
Quick Tip by . August 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
The Coen Bros lately give us characters to care about briefly. Then they die. This is wearing thin. Their satirical schtick feels increasingly bitter rather than entertaining, and this film shows their smug insularity. A few moments such as the deadpan CIA suits as they converse hit their mark, but the actors seem as worn out as their convoluted storylines now.
Quick Tip by . August 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Intriguing and amusing at times, but overall, I could barely keep myself focused on the screen.
Quick Tip by . August 03, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
A little disappointed with this one, great cast but expected a little more.
Quick Tip by . July 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Very Underrated. One of the funniest movies I have seen lately
Quick Tip by . July 22, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
The Coen brothers are the master of surprises, and Burn After Reading definitely had some surprises I hadn't expected. An amazing cast for great film
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
I expected it to be better but it was okay. Maybe i wasnt in the mood that night.
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Simon Lee Tranter ()
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About this movie


With their overtly comedic follow-up BURN AFTER READING, the Coen Brothers return--about a third of the way--from the dark, dank recesses of the human psyche they traversed in their Oscar-winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. For those unfamiliar with the landscape of modern movie psychoanalysis, this puts the fraternal filmmakers square in the cruel, misanthropic, and farcical realm of their 1990s-era body of work, somewhere between the tragicomic crime thriller of FARGO and the disconnected noir-homage anti-storytelling of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, with 2007's NO COUNTRY retroactively adding new nihilism-tinged dimensions of smart skepticism to the proceedings. In a more linear trajectory, BURN AFTER READING also stands as the third entry, after BLOOD SIMPLE and FARGO, in what could be an unofficial Tragedy of Human Idiocy trilogy, wherein characters make the most outlandishly moronic moves to devastating consequences simply by adhering to true human behavior. Indeed, Carter Burwell's emotionally weighty score, whic...

After the dark brilliance ofNo Country for Old Men,Burn After Readingmay seem like a trifle, but few filmmakers elevate the trivial to art quite like Joel and Ethan Coen. Inspired by Stansfield Turner'sBurn Before Reading, the comically convoluted plot clicks into gear when the CIA gives analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) the boot. Little does Cox know his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton, riffing on herMichael Claytoncharacter), is seeing married federal marshal ...
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Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Genre: Comedy
Release Date: September 12, 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
DVD Release Date: December 21, 2008
Runtime: 96 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios
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