Burn After Reading (2008) / Comedy-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence
Running time: 96 min
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons
Cameo: Kevin Sussman, Dermot Mulroney
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Review published September 19, 2008
A newly-terminated CIA agent, Osborne Cox (Malkovich, The Mutant Chronicles), proceeds to make his living compiling his memoirs in the hopes of getting published as a book. He loses the compact disc containing his only copy of the tell-all manuscript at a local health club, found by the staff there. Two of the staff, Linda (McDormand, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and Chad (Pitt, Ocean's 13), mistakenly decide that the contents must be top-secret spy info and that the owner will be so thrilled at its safe return, he will give these good Samaritans a sizable reward. They contact Cox in order to secure the exchange, but they only draw his ire, as he begins a campaign to get the CD-Rom without having to pay. Thus begins a chain reaction of mistaken identities and twisted motives that eventually results in lies, blackmail, treason and murder.
A dessert film for the Coen Brothers (Paris I Love You, Intolerable Cruelty), coming off of their critically acclaimed No Country for Old Men, sees them having fun making the kinds of comedic thrillers with bumbling criminals they've become known for, a la Raising Arizona, Fargo, and The Ladykillers. It's a movie, not unlike their very first concept, Blood Simple, that contains characters that are used primarily for plotting more so than for story. They exist merely as long as they serve a purpose, whether comedic or tragic, adding personality touches as necessary to keep the momentum rolling. No one is set up to be the "good guy", though some are more sympathetic than others, mostly due to the fact that they are more clueless that what they're doing is wrong than the rest.
The tone of the film will draw some viewers in early, or it will miss some altogether. As with many Coen Brothers films, they don't package their stories so that everyone can understand just what everything means, so if you're not in tune with their own peculiar style, you may find yourself wondering just what's so funny throughout. It's not quite screwball, and it's not quite black comedy, and a little more than a hybrid of both. The Coens also let the viewer decide what causes the mistaken identities and why the characters are motivated to do the crazy things they do. If you find yourself unsure, you may get lost. Luckily, even if you don't follow the plot, it contains enough funny characterizations to keep the interest level of most Coen fans throughout, as eccentric personalities are always a big attraction to their films.
Burn After Reading is blessed with solid casting, as Coen spouse and frequent costar Frances McDormand shines even among bigger stars like Clooney (Leatherheads, Michael Clayton), his third Coen collaboration, Brad Pitt and John Malkovich (his best role in years). Even superfluous scenes of a stymied CIA HQ, represented by SImmons (Juno) and Rasche (The Sentinel), unable to figure out any sense in actions that are so random lead to some of the film's bigger laughs. These are characters that live more for image and gratification than in anything else, and their lack of common sense and willingness to engage in vice over virtue sees them stumble time and time again.
Burn After Reading will not likely go down as on of the best of the Coen Brothers films, probably relegated as one of their quaintly enjoyable but lesser works, but it is still more inventive and amusing than most other comedies to come out in 2008. If you're a fan of theirs, or of the main players, it's worth a look for some offbeat fun at the expense of others.
©2008 Vince Leo