Burn After Reading (2008)
Burn After Reading (2008)

Genre: Crime Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

Release Date: September 12th, 2008 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen Actors: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Marvel, J.K. Simmons




s with their previous outing, the Coen Brothers once again brilliantly skewer the conventions of storytelling with “Burn After Reading.” Darker than “The Big Lebowski” and more deviously complex than “Blood Simple,” this latest venture cleverly mocks the structure of cause and effect and turns the tables on its omniscient audience by toying with their need to have sensible reasons for particular character actions. One can walk away assured that the Coens are masters of their art, but learn no moral or life lessons from what is essentially a spy yarn about incompetency and idiocy – and what is likely a wry lampooning of government agencies in general.

Having been unexpectedly terminated from the CIA, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) decides to write his memoirs. This doesn’t bode well for his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who has been planning a divorce from her overbearing husband so that she can continue having an affair with U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). When Osborne’s memoirs accidentally end up in the hands of two immoral gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), their subsequent scheme to blackmail Osborne sets off a chain reaction of infidelity, mistaken identities, paranoia, murder, and mayhem.

The Coen Brothers have truly perfected the art of constructing eccentric characters brimming with unique quirks and bizarre concepts of morality, highlighted in this first original screenplay since “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001). From Clooney’s fickle Pfarrer and Swinton’s icy Katie to Pitt and McDormand’s clueless, in-over-their-heads extorters, the cast is stuffed full of peculiar personas capable of anything and everything – each embodied by an A-list artist. Every character seems to have a chance at happiness, yet blindly ignores such opportunities to instead descend into a scenario of irrationality and folly. The only drawback to the Coens’ choices for the population of their absurd world is the extreme lack of decency and common sense inhabiting each role. There’s virtually no one worth rooting for, as ever-stranger behaviors produce no glimmer of redemption or hope, leaving viewers distanced from any emotional connection. Still, the occasion to see an assortment of esteemed actors play amusingly foolish parts shouldn’t be missed.

Continually evolving into the unexpected, the plot is carefully woven around its naïve characters, who are almost entirely oblivious to the harm they bring upon themselves and each other. Extremely dark humor permeates every scene as the dialogue effortlessly evokes shocks and laughs with its creativity and nods to the lingo of spy pictures and cinematic espionage. By the end, it’s evident that actions and reactions aren’t governed by logic or significance, and that a certain level of randomness intervenes – or perhaps destines – the unintelligent. But learning a valuable lesson isn’t a necessary component in being highly entertained.

– The Massie Twins

  • 8/10