Burn After Reading

Movie Information

The Story: A pair of none-too-bright gym workers come across a CD that appears to contain top-secret CIA information and attempt to blackmail its owner into paying for its return. The Lowdown: The Coen Brothers' latest is a very funny, very mean, very dark farce about humankind's amassed self-centered stupidity. It's frequently hilarious, but it's not for the faint of heart or the tender of sensibilities.
Genre: Black Comedy-Satire
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, J.K. Simmons
Rated: R

The Coen Brothers return triumphant with Burn After Reading, a film that’s as different from their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007) as possible. Where No Country was serious (with Coen-esque bouts of bitter humor), Burn After Reading at least appears to be a very frivolous affair (with Coen-esque bouts of grisliness). But as Brad Pitt’s character says during the course of the film, “appearances can be deceptive.” At bottom, I think Burn is anything but frivolous. It’s just so much unwholesome fun that it seems that way.

On the surface, Burn After Reading consists of several highly rated Hollywood stars (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt) along with a couple notable character actors (J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins) poking fun at themselves, at their screen personas and, in some cases, at their public personas. Their characters are blessed one way and another with character traits that are, shall we say, strictly Coen—like Clooney’s home-handyman obsession with the kind of wood other people’s floors are made of or his postcoital obsession with “getting a run in.”

The story purports to be a wigged-out spy yarn that takes place in the realm of upper-middle level CIA, lower-middle level vestiges of the KGB and upper-middle class Washington, D.C., society—with some working-class stiffs thrown in to complicate matters. Malkovich plays CIA operative Osborne Cox, a bitter wannabe maverick with a drinking problem he denies exists (“You’re a Mormon, everybody’s a fucking alcoholic to you,” he tells an accusatory coworker). He quits the agency rather than accept a demotion. His hazy plan is to get his revenge by writing a tell-all memoir—while living off his fed-up wife, Katie (Swinton), who’s having an affair with none-too-bright, oversexed federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who, in turn, is living off his wife, Sandy (TV actress Elizabeth Marvel), an author of popular children’s books.

On the other side of the tracks is Linda Litzke (McDormand), a middle-aged worker at a gym who is obsessed with her body image—convinced that her single status can be cured by cosmetic surgery (“I’ve gone about as far as I can with this body”). Unfortunately, her insurance doesn’t cover this sort of thing, but potential help arrives when—through a typically silly turn of events—a CD containing the first chapters of Cox’s tell-all memoir and his banking information that looks like code ends up on the locker room floor at the gym. Naturally, Linda and her even more dim-witted sidekick, Chad (Pitt), reason that Cox will pay substantially for its return. From here, things get really complicated in a series of crossed paths and ever-screwier ideas that aren’t always as safe as they may seem.

All of this rampant infidelity and perfidy hasn’t escaped the notice of the CIA. Each aspect of what’s going on is duly reported to a CIA supervisor (J.K. Simmons), who becomes increasingly baffled by the complete lack of rational thought evidenced by everyone involved. Oh, he’ll step in to clean up messes various and sundry, but he has no clue why any of this is happening, nor why any of these people are doing what they are. “Report back to me when it makes sense,” he says at one point, knowing full well that it never will. It’s not clear whether he’s actually that much smarter than anyone else in the film, but he’s at least bright enough to know everyone is ultimately incompetent and irrational—yet completely convinced that the opposite is true.

That’s really the crux of the film, and the thing that makes all the Coens’ undeniable fun actually have some point. Anyone who has ever had any in-depth dealings with the corporate world will recognize the amassed incompetence on display here. All the Coens have done is place it on every level of society—from the lowest to the near highest—reaching a conclusion that absolutely no one really knows anything, that everyone is flailing about in the dark, completely deluded by their own sense of self-importance. In the end, nearly everything that happens in Burn After Reading results from Linda Litzke’s media-fed desire for a body makeover—perhaps simultaneously the most ridiculous premise, yet strangely appropriate one to our age imaginable. In the world of the Coens’ darkly funny film, we’re all going to hell and the only possible response is to sit back and be amused by the sheer absurdity of the ride. It may just be the perfect film for our time. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “Burn After Reading

  1. Louis

    In the world of the Coens’ darkly funny film, we’re all going to hell and the only possible response is to sit back and be amused by the sheer absurdity of the ride. It may just be the perfect film for our time.

    This cinematic presentation sounds suspiciously similar to the prevailing theme coming from the comedic offerings of the late George Carlin–i.e., the joys of sitting back and watching chaos ensue as we admit to ourselves that nothing is at it’s said to be or meant to appear. Too bad he missed the impending collapse of the U.S. financial markets, huh?

  2. Jim Donato

    Did anyone else pick up on two references to Ted Flicker’s “The President’s Analyst” in “Burn After Reading?” First, the man that Linda contacts in the Russian Embassy is named Kropotkin – Severn Darden’s character from TPA. And this homage is driven home further in a lift of the classic “Aha! You see??!! I’m NOT paranoid” scene in TPA; vis. the “who are you working for” scene at the end of BFA with Harry and Linda in the park where he learns just who Chad was.

    As for your analysis of the theme of the film, it’s important to remember; as I often mention to my wife, that what we’re dealing with here are simple primates.

  3. Ken Hanke

    It’s been a long while since I’ve seen The President’s Analyst, but I’ll take your word for the connection. That also fits the grubbiness of the completely out of date Russian embassy, which, among other things, sports a couple of telephones that were the last word in modernity at about the same time as The President’s Analyst.

  4. movie buff

    Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he’s not taking himself too seriously… in any case, it’s about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements http://www.kogmedia.com

  5. Adam Renkovish

    I loved every minute of this film! It was amazing. However, I was the only one who felt that way. I took the pastor’s daughter with me. She wasn’t as enthusiastic. Oh, well. Excellent review! :)

  6. Steven

    I just got back from seeing it. I thought it was hilarious. Brad Pitt stole the whole movie.

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