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Overall Rating
4.16

Awesome45.61%
Worth A Look: 36.84%
Just Average: 8.77%
Pretty Crappy: 5.26%
Sucks: 3.51%

4 reviews, 33 user ratings


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Burn After Reading
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Spy Who Came In With The Clods"
5 stars

The early reviews of “Burn After Reading,” the latest film from Joel & Ethan Coen, have been all over the place but the one thing that most of them seem to have in common (especially the more negative ones) is a certain confusion as to why they would want to follow up the spectacular commercial, critical and award success of last year’s relatively serious and literary-minded masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” with a bizarre knockabout comedy in which a number of highly respected performers have been asked to act like complete goons in the service of a story that is about as subtle and restrained as a bowling ball to the head. Before seeing the film, I thought that these assertions seemed kind of silly and belied a certain level of ignorance from the critics making them because it is an inescapable fact that whenever the Coens have scored an unexpected triumph--such as their acclaimed 1985 debut “Blood Simple,” the Palm d’Or winning “Barton Fink” or the sleeper hit “Fargo”--they have always followed up those works with broad romps like “Raising Arizona,” “The Hudsucker Proxy” and the cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” In each of those cases, they were rewarded for their efforts with critics asking why the hell they were wasting their time on something so trivial when they could be making something more important and artistic. Okay, if the only Coen Brothers film that you had ever seen in your life was “No Country for Old Men,” I guess I can see how the shift in tone might seem a little jarring on the surface but if you are a critic who is presumably being paid to write because of a certain expertise on the subject of film, an inability to even recognize this tendency is pretty embarrassing.

Now that I have seen “Burn After Reading,” I am even more confused by those early reactions because rather than coming across as just a lazy bit of silly hackwork, it is a full-fledged Coen Brothers film through and through featuring all their trademarks. There is a story that is less a part of a specific screen genre than a self-conscious exploration of that particular genre (from such obvious choices as the gangster meditation “Miller‘s Crossing“ and the detective japery of “The Big Lebowski“ to more esoteric ones as the pointless “Director‘s Cuts“ symbolized by their 2001 revision of “Blood Simple“ and “The Ladykillers,” their 2004 take on pointless remakes). There is a seemingly innocuous item that attains near-talismanic properties as the story unfolds (such as a package of Huggies, a toupee, a Hula Hoop, an area rug and a bag filled with ill-gotten money). There are characters who, more often than not, are not quite as smart as they think they are and who find themselves stumbling through the labyrinthine narratives with barely any idea of how they got into them or how to get out and if they do make it out, they are generally too perplexed by the entire experience to have learned much of anything in the end. And, of course, there is a strange and decidedly off-beat sense of humor in which the laughs are inspired by everything from goofy slapstick to intricately written dialogue of pure poetry involving powerful people sitting down together in big rooms to discuss what is what to moments of gruesome violence.

This time around, the subgenre that the Coens are having fun with is the paranoid conspiracy thriller in which ordinary people find themselves inexplicably threatened by vast and powerful forces that they cannot begin to understand and struggle to figure out why they are being targeted before it is too late. The talisman in question is a CD that may or may not belong to Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who was recently drummed out of the agency because of a drinking problem (“You’re a Mormon! Next to you, we all have drinking problems” is his less-than-convincing retort) , and may or may not contain mundane financial information, a few chapters of the memoirs that he has decided to write in his now-voluminous spare time or raw covert intelligence that is so damaging and hush-hush that knowledge of its existence would send tremors in the highest corridors of power and instill a bidding war among any number of parties interested in the secrets it contains. This CD turns up on the floor of the ladies locker room of a low-rent D.C. gym and winds up affecting the lives of a strange group of characters. There is Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a fenderhead personal trainer at the gym who looks at the information on the disc and immediately decides that someone out there will surely want to pay a large amount of money for its retrieval. There is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a co-worker of Chad’s who has decided to embark on a series of expensive plastic surgeries to make herself more attractive and who thinks that the CD might go a long way towards funding them. There is Osbourne’s long-suffering wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who has had her fill of her mate and who is surreptitiously making moves towards leaving him for good and taking up with her lover. There is Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a mid-level Treasury department employee who is married to the author of politically oriented children‘s books, carrying on one long-standing affair with Katie, is beginning another with Linda and whose every move is apparently being followed, possibly by people wanting to know what strange contraption he seems to be constructing in secret in the basement during what spare time he has. There is Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), the owner of the gym who insists that he wants nothing to do with the disc but whose not-so-secret affection for Linda may force him to do otherwise. Finally, there are a couple of higher-level CIA men (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons) who sit in big rooms far away from the action and try in vain to understand what is going on with all the other characters.

As you can probably guess, “Burn After Reading” is not especially interested in telling a neatly constructed and perfectly coherent story in which all the pieces come together in the end. Instead , they prefer telling long and complicated tales in which the challenge is to keep all of their plates spinning in the air for as long as they can before finally admitting in a roundabout way that very few of the numerous tangents and diversions have much of anything to do with each other. In the case of “Burn After Reading,” this conceit works especially well because it finds them goofing on a genre in which the best examples--titles such as “The Parallax View,” “The Falcon and the Snowman” and “Syriana” immediately come to mind (and are all referenced here as well)--are films that thrive on creating dense and highly complex narratives for their characters to make their way through. (Even the surface elements from those films are cleverly evoked thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and composer Carter Burwell, both of whom offer up work that both pays tribute to and gently mocks the visual and sonic traditions of the genre.) The joke here is that this is a film about characters who may have seen a few paranoid conspiracy thrillers over the years but who clearly didn’t understand them. Oh sure, they picked up a few details here and there from those films but have no idea of how to apply them for themselves in much the same manner as a tourist who learns only a few random phrases in a foreign language before traveling to a different country and then has no idea of what to do after deploying them. At one point, a character is convinced that they are in trouble and begs someone to “just give me 24 hours!” to clean things up. That is a line that we have heard in countless thrillers before and while it might sound good in that person’s mind, it isn’t very helpful in this case because the person asking for the time has no idea of what they could possibly do in 24 hours and the person being asked to provide those 24 hours has neither the authority to grant such a wish nor any idea of what the person making the request is even talking about in the first place. Then there is the long diversion when Linda and Chad, having gotten nowhere with Osborne (mostly because he keeps on reminding them that they are morons), decide to see if the Russians might be interested in purchasing the material for themselves, an offer that inspires more confusion from everyone (especially the Russians themselves) than anything else.

Instead, like practically every other film from the Coens, “Burn After Reading” is, at its heart, a character study of a group of especially quirky types thrown together in the service of a storyline that turns out to be not very important except as a vehicle for bringing them together. Once again, the Coens have managed to pull things off beautifully by bringing together a great cast of actors who are cheerfully willing to go broad and mess with their screen images while delivering their archly ironic dialogue in such a way that they actually sound like the things that their characters might say in such a situation. Of course, we know that people like George Clooney (whose entire performance seems to be a sly jab at his award-winning turn in “Syriana,” right down to the beard), Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins can pull that off from their numerous collaborations with the Coens over the years. What comes as a shock and pleasure is how quickly and completely the newcomers to the fold have picked up those unique rhythms as well. Casting an actor like Malkovich, whose entire screen persona is based on the conceit that a.) he is much smarter than anyone else sharing the screen with him or sitting out in the audience watching him and that b.) he isn’t afraid to remind anyone of that fact in the most explicitly profane manner possible should the occasion arise, as Osborne may almost seem like a bit of casting that is almost too spot-on but he nails the character so completely--both his sense of superiority and the fact that he is, deep down, just as much of a dope as anyone else--that it turns out to be arguably his most hilariously engaging turn since playing himself, more or less, in “Being John Malkovich.” Although she is stuck with what is arguably the most superfluous role in the entire film--her character pretty much only exists to help push the story along to some degree, Tilda Swinton is also quite funny here as Kate and the fact that her role inadvertently plays like a comic riff on her own Oscar-winning turn in last year’s “Michael Clayton” adds an extra level of inspired zaniness that is most welcome. However, the funniest work in the film comes from Brad Pitt, an actor who has tried so hard in the past to show viewers that there is a serious actor lurking behind that handsome visage that it is often forgotten that when he is given a more comedic role, as he had in films as varied as “True Romance,” “Fight Club” and “Snatch,” he generally pretty hilarious in them. As Chad, he gets to basically play a flat-out dope with nary a redeeming facet--even his looks are somehow muted under the power of a hairdo that may remind some fans of the coif he sported when he played the similarly clueless “Johnny Suede”--and it is just as much of a ball watching him play it as he clearly had while playing it. His response to Malkovich referring to his bicycle as a Schwinn during their big confrontation scene is not only worth the price of admission all by itself, it is also worth the price of popcorn and a medium soft drink as well.

“Burn After Reading” may not be as stunning and thoughtful of a work from the Coen Brothers as such previous masterpieces as “Miller’s Crossing,” “Fargo” or “No Country for Old Men.” That said, it is nevertheless a freaky and foul-mouthed delight from start to finish and it is easily the most delightfully loopy piece of screwball silliness that they have indulged in since “The Big Lebowski.“ It may be a trifle but as trifles go, it gets the job done with a lot of big laughs and a number of wholly unanticipated plot twists that will force viewers to question everything that they have ever assumed regarding topics as varied as the intelligence behind America’s intelligence agencies to Dermot Mulroney. In the end. “Burn After Reading” is a film that is essentially about nothing much at all but it goes about achieving that nothing in such audaciously funny ways that it turns out to certainly be something after all.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17040&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/12/08 00:00:00
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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
7/30/09 zenny wait, what? 2 stars
7/20/09 mr.mike Pitt and McDormand try too hard to be funny , the supporting actors carry it. 3 stars
3/08/09 KingNeutron Waste of time - glad I didnt spend Theater $$ - saw it on DVD 1 stars
1/31/09 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
1/02/09 FrankNFurter Entertaining, but wildly uneven comedy/suspense/drama;this mix of genres didn't work here! 3 stars
12/24/08 Justin It was pretty good. Not great, but very entertaining. 4 stars
12/23/08 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
10/23/08 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
10/10/08 Colleen H funny, but pretty predictable. 3 stars
10/08/08 Leanne Worth every squeemish moment. Hilarious (but very dark) comedy. LOVED it. Malk. was great 5 stars
10/03/08 Christine Yes! Yes! Yes! 5 stars
9/28/08 Smitty Not one of the C. Bros. best, but Brad Pitt is worth the price of admission. 4 stars
9/26/08 Quigley Typical Coen Bros. You either love it or hate it. Clooney and Pitt were quite good, anyways 3 stars
9/26/08 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
9/23/08 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
9/18/08 J.B. A real hoot of a film, wonderfully whacky, brilliantly acted and directed. 5 stars
9/15/08 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
9/14/08 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
9/13/08 jcjs not to compare with likes of 'No Country..', a hoot..great fun..wow..how do they do it? 5 stars
9/13/08 Darkstar Very dark comedy, I laughed my ass off. Not as funny as the big lebowski, but close. 5 stars
9/13/08 PAUL SHORTT MORBIDLY ABSURD, THOROUGHLY POINTLESS AND UTTERLY DISPOSABLE 1 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  12-Sep-2008 (R)
  DVD: 21-Dec-2008

UK
  N/A

Australia
  12-Sep-2008
  DVD: 21-Dec-2008



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