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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 36.84%
Average: 8.77%
Pretty Bad: 5.26%
Total Crap: 3.51%

4 reviews, 33 user ratings

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Burn After Reading
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by Mel Valentin

"An anti-spy comedy/black comedy well worth your time (and money)."
4 stars

Prolific filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen ("The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing," "Raising Arizona," "Blood Simple"), fresh off their Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, "No Country for Old Men," are back less than a year later with "Burn After Reading," a black/comedy spy farce. With their reputations restored after the success of "No Country for Old Men" ("The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty" were critical and commercial misfires), the Coen Brothers deliver an absurdist, Seinfeldian comedy of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and mistaken identity. "Burn After Reading" may not reach the Olympian heights of the Coen Brothers’ previous forays into farce and black comedy ("The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," and "Raising Arizona" got there first), but it comes close.

Burn After Reading focuses on a minor constellation of self-obsessed characters, ranging from Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury agent and serial adulterer who brags about never firing his gun in 20 years as an agent, the married lover angling for a long-term commitment, Katie (Tilda Swinton), her ex-CIA analyst husband with a drinking problem and a penchant for profanity, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a forty-something gym employee eager to embark on a flurry of self-improvement through cosmetic surgery, her manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), who longs for Linda to return his romantic interest, and Linda’s friend and fellow gym employee, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a strutting, preening, pretty boy who’s as deep as the shallow end of a swimming pool.

Everyone wants something from everyone else and that something, a MacGuffin (an object of desire and plot device of little relevance and marginal importance) if there ever was one, centers on a CD containing a partial manuscript of Osborn’s tell-all memoirs. An employee at the Hardbodies Fitness Center finds the CD, turns it over to Chad. After deciphering the CD’s contents, Chad and Linda see money in their future: contact Osborne and offer the CD in exchange for a “Good Samaritan” tax. Osborne refuses to go along to get along, which in turn convinces Chad and Linda to look for a buyer; their first stop: the Russian embassy and a cultural attaché, Krapotkin (Olek Krupa). As Chad and Linda stumble their way into mischief and mayhem, Pfarrer’s deceit begins to catch up with him. Osborne, despairing at the loss of his career and his disintegrating marriage, veers dangerously close into madness.

A nominal spy farce where everyone makes serious misjudgments based on self-interest and, given the Washington, D.C. setting, rampant, unfiltered paranoia, Burn After Reading is ultimately less about its plot convolutions (all of them minimally plausible) than the fear, anxiety, and doubt (FUD), and the mangled bodies and tortured psyches left in the wake of a series of increasingly absurd, if no less deadly, coincidences. And given that Burn After Reading is a Coen Brothers film through and through, light, satirical comedy turns increasingly bleak, until all of the characters are caught up in the unintended consequences (or to borrow a phrase from foreign policy circles, “blowback”) that lead into the blackest comedy.

Themes aside, "Burn After Reading" features a drum-tight ensemble cast, from John Malkovich as the volcanic-tempered Osborne, to Tilda Swinton’s icy cool portrayal of Katie, to George Clooney’s manic turn as a deceitful serial adulterer, to Frances McDormand as the self-centered, dim, but not dim-witted Linda Litzke, to the underrated Richard Jenkins as Linda’s manager (his tortured looks alone are a master class in self-abnegation), to Brad Pitt, letting his inner narcissist come out and play in his performance as Chad Feldheimer, and in two smaller, but no less hilarious roles, David Rasche as a CIA officer deeply perplexed by the events surrounding Chad and Linda’s attempts to blackmail Osborne, and, finally, to the always reliable J.K. Simmons as the CIA officer’s superior, who refuses to let a couple of bodies and a shooting ruin his day.

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originally posted: 09/13/08 04:06:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell smart & funny 4 stars
6/29/16 stephen ridiculously entertaining farce with a great cast 5 stars
8/15/09 MP Bartley Meandering start, but picks up into a killingly funny farce. Pitt and Malkovich are great. 4 stars
7/31/09 zenny wait, what? 2 stars
7/21/09 mr.mike Pitt and McDormand try too hard to be funny , the supporting actors carry it. 3 stars
3/09/09 KingNeutron Waste of time - glad I didnt spend Theater $$ - saw it on DVD 1 stars
2/01/09 R.W. Welch More loopy losers from The Brothers. Quite funny in spots. 4 stars
1/31/09 matt a very strange movie. not bad, just mismarketed. 4 stars
1/04/09 Tony Opaque, perhaps even mean-spirited comedy. And yet, the zaniness of it all won me over. 5 stars
1/03/09 FrankNFurter Entertaining, but wildly uneven comedy/suspense/drama;this mix of genres didn't work here! 3 stars
12/25/08 Justin It was pretty good. Not great, but very entertaining. 4 stars
12/24/08 Pitty Another quirky tale from the Coens, worth a look for fans 4 stars
11/05/08 Louise Hugely entertaining although ended a bit suddenly. 4 stars
10/30/08 pin No Redemption For Fools 4 stars
10/24/08 Monday Morning Overall disappointing but better than avg. flick. The CIA guys are hilarious, tho'. 4 stars
10/22/08 Erik Has its dull moments definatley expected more from a bunch of talented people 3 stars
10/11/08 Colleen H funny, but pretty predictable. 3 stars
10/09/08 Leanne Worth every squeemish moment. Hilarious (but very dark) comedy. LOVED it. Malk. was great 5 stars
10/04/08 Christine Yes! Yes! Yes! 5 stars
9/29/08 Smitty Not one of the C. Bros. best, but Brad Pitt is worth the price of admission. 4 stars
9/27/08 Quigley Typical Coen Bros. You either love it or hate it. Clooney and Pitt were quite good, anyways 3 stars
9/27/08 Sully ...I think I had that guy Chad as a roommate. Idiot. 5 stars
9/26/08 Simon Another Coen tale best put as just 'different'. Funny in spurts, till HILARIOUS by its end 4 stars
9/24/08 LadyPB Some pretty damned good actors in a truly stupid movie 2 stars
9/21/08 Samantha Pruitt pretty funny, great characters, weird ending 4 stars
9/19/08 J.B. A real hoot of a film, wonderfully whacky, brilliantly acted and directed. 5 stars
9/16/08 Will Funny but ultimately unsatisfying 4 stars
9/15/08 Lisa very funny with lots of surprises...Pitt was a bit over the top....but i would reccomend it 4 stars
9/15/08 bob A tale ABOUT idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying not a lot, but funny as hell. 4 stars
9/14/08 KC typical wackiness ensued, with great highlites, but no guts to the body 2 stars
9/14/08 jcjs not to compare with likes of 'No Country..', a hoot..great do they do it? 5 stars
9/14/08 Darkstar Very dark comedy, I laughed my ass off. Not as funny as the big lebowski, but close. 5 stars
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  12-Sep-2008 (R)
  DVD: 21-Dec-2008


  DVD: 21-Dec-2008

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