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Movie Review: Burn After Reading

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There’s a simple reason why most of us see the films that star our favorite actors or are directed by our favorite directors – there’s a comfortable familiarity in it. Chances are, if we liked their previous work, we’re going to like their current work, and sometimes it’s just nice to go into a movie theater knowing what you’re in for.

Of course the best actors, and certainly the best directors, achieve this sense of familiarity without ever serving the same dish twice. They’ve established their style, sure, but that usually doesn’t mean the audience gets the same old thing reheated.

It’s hard to think of any filmmakers who achieve this exact feat on a more regular basis than Joel and Ethan Coen.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you know what you’ve committed yourself to when settling in your seat for their latest film. Thematically, their films run the gamut (obviously No Country for Old Men is a very different film than O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but they all bear the stamp of the Coen trademark.

Burn After Reading is no different. It’s a film that’s irrepressibly Coenesque, and truthfully, it doesn’t cover a whole lot of ground that the directors haven’t previously visited. But it’s always clever, often hilarious, and features plenty of memorable performances that the Coens always seem to provoke from their actors, from the headliners to the one-scene supporters.

John Malkovich steals the show early on as Osborne Cox, a CIA official ousted from his job because apparently, he has a drinking problem. “A drinking problem?” Cox utters in disbelief repeatedly. He goes on to spend the entire film in a state of incredulity. Can the people around him really be this stupid?

Yes. Yes, they can.

Furious over his termination, Cox sets out to write a memoir detailing his experiences at the CIA, but a disc containing a portion of his notes falls into the hands of two employees at the Hardbodies Gym, Linda Litzke and Chad Feldheimer (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) who decide the information is sensitive. They’re either going to blackmail Cox or sell the secrets to the Russians, because Linda needs money for the bevy of plastic surgery she’s convinced she needs.

Meanwhile George Clooney stars as the neurotic Harry Pfarrer, a bodyguard of sorts who is having an affair with Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton.) But Harry isn’t a one or even two-woman man, and spends some quiet evenings with Linda as well.

It’s fairly complex, but the Coens take their time with the setup, and they do an impeccable job detailing the ridiculousness of these characters, who don’t realize just what idiots they are. It could have easily devolved into a confusing mishmash of quirky characters and silly hijinks, but it all remains remarkably clear, which allows the Coens to unleash a theater of the absurd in the second half.

The setup drags at points in the beginning, but it’s worth it for the frantic pace the film achieves by its conclusion, and a totally satisfying ending it is.

Every actor hits the mark, but Pitt deserves some special recognition for his performance as the airheaded gym trainer. It’s absolutely hilarious.

Burn After Reading is not the greatest or most memorable Coen Brothers film ever; compared to some of their more ambitious projects, it’s a small film and it doesn’t reach for any grandiose significance. But it succeeds at being superbly intelligent, very funny, a little sad and slightly horrific. And that’s about everything you’d hope to see in a Coen Brothers film.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • JL

    This movie was nothing more than garbage. No dialogue, weak storie, and poor acting. I am no sure whay you cannot call it as it is.