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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 brianorndorf

"The Coens bring on the idiots"
5 stars

With all due respect to Joel and Ethan Coen’s monumental artistic and financial success with last year’s Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading” is potent shot of vintage Coen that works as a tremendous palate cleanser. A back-stabbing, double-crossing, exhaustively absurd caper with pitch-black comedic enhancements, “Burn” is a beauty; a charged symphony of impulsive idiots left to their own devices, leaving behind a trail of bloodshed and bewilderment with every move they make.

Forced out of his C.I.A. analyst job due to excessive drinking, Osborne (John Malkovich) is ready to write his memoirs and deal with his bitter wife (Tilda Swinton). When a CD copy of the rough draft ends up on the locker room floor of the Hardbodies fitness center, employees Chad (Brad Pitt, officially on another planet with this blissfully imbecilic performance) and Linda (Frances McDormand, also hamming it up agreeably) scoop it up and try to decode the contents. Thinking the files are explosive government secrets, the duo decides to blackmail Osborne to acquire the down payment for Linda’s cosmetic surgeries. Also in the mix is Harry (George Clooney), a Treasury agent who’s cheating on Osborne’s wife with Linda, sucked into this series of covert occurrences through his rabid paranoia and inability to pacify his sexual urges.

While the Coens have flirted with their black comedy roots in the recent past (“The Ladykillers,” “Intolerable Cruelty”), “Burn” shares its most biting qualities with the now-classic picture, “Fargo.” “Burn” isn’t nearly as spare as the 1996 Midwestern horror show, but it contains an identical arch attitude and willingness to goof off near obscenely stark circumstances. The material plays to the directors’ substantial sense of devious comic timing and use of aggression, culminating in a cartwheeling farce where anything goes in the most hilarious, horrifying ways.

Scripting themselves a cat’s cradle of a story that vigorously lampoons zigzagging espionage cinema, the Coens aren’t chasing anarchy with “Burn,” but an insular breath of behavioral madness. The picture is a valentine to idiots, spotlighting a collection of people too wrapped up in their own vanity to take even a passing notice of their outlandish actions. Harry is a sex-toy enthusiastic, lovesick man who’s cheating on his mistress, but can’t quite give up on his wife. Osborne is a sour drunk, watching his frigid life ripped out of his hands by two buffoons. And said buffoons, Chad and Linda, have feasted on one too many spy movies, trying to blackmail an already confused man, only escalating the problem when they march the prized CD of info into the Russian embassy, which doesn’t have a clue how to process such a brazen act of traitorous American behavior.

Everyone in “Burn” is after something for themselves, they simply aren’t sharp enough to achieve their goals. The Coens exploit the carnival of morons by layering on the accidents and adulterous tomfoolery in a gooey glaze of blunders and unfounded suspicion, methodically pushing the characters to extremes, either comedic or violent. Nobody stirs a pot quite like the Coens, and, backed by an enchanting score from Carter Burwell, the film fearlessly dives into the dense, endless mess eager to capture every single beat of surprise.

There’s a host of spoilery shocks in “Burn” that lunge out of nowhere, and a supporting turn by J.K. Simmons as the perturbed head of the C.I.A. is nearly worth the price of admission alone: observe the only individual in the movie who appears directly aware that he’s dealing with a handful of boobs making a mess of every conceivable action they undertake.

“Burn After Reading” isn’t all kindly misfortune. The picture is quick with brutality as much as it is with wit, requiring more sensitive viewers to buckle up extra tightly to absorb a Coen specialty: the rope-a-dope, speed-of-light switch from bellylaughs to pure revulsion. It’s a dance these brothers are exceptionally well versed at. Don’t let Pitt’s Malibu Stacy performance fool you: the Coen Brothers are up to their old tricks, and it’s phenomenal to see them flex their mischievous muscles again with such intoxicating results.

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originally posted: 09/13/08 00:00:37
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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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