Burn After Reading

© 2008 Ray Wong


Fresh off their triumph at the Oscars with No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers returns to their own material with a quirky, subversive story about spies, blackmail, and adulteries.

photo1Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who has just been demoted. Out of anger, he quits his job to the dismay of his disapproving wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is actually having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a security specialist at the Treasury Department. Katie secretly seeks a divorce from Osborne, and in the process, gathers information from his computer just for leverage. Accidentally, the information falls into the hands of Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand), employees at the Hardbody Gym.

photo2Chad and Linda decide to blackmail Osborne, thinking he's some kind of spy. It sounds like easy money: Linda needs it to pay for her plastic surgeries, and Chad is just doing it for fun. Osborne refuses to pay, of course. So Chad and Linda take the information to the Russian Embassy hoping they'll get something out of that. Meanwhile, Linda hooks up with Harry through the Internet and falls in love with him, while he's just playing the field. One thing leads to another, and Linda finds herself in deep in a conspiracy that may jeopardize everyone's life including her own.

photo3The ensemble cast includes Frances McDormand (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), whose performance is almost pitch perfect as a woman who becomes obsessed with her "crisis." She is simply deliciously irrelevant and clueless. Her comic timing is also very good, without being over the top. George Clooney (Leatherheads) is in fine comedic form as the philanderer whose sexual trysts end up biting him back. He seems at ease with the role, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. In comparison, Brad Pitt (Ocean's Thirteen) stands out like a sore thumb as he tries too hard to be funny. In fact, he just acts like Brad Pitt trying to act stupid.

photo4The rest of the cast is rather good, though. John Malkovich (Beowulf) has a blast playing the obnoxious analyst who refuses to compromise. His foul and angry and over the top, but in a good, John Malkovich way. Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) has a relatively small role and her character is too reserved and cold to make a true impression. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) is very good as the kind-hearted gym manager.

photo5Written and directed by the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men), the film returns to their famed quirkiness and subversive plot twists. At times, you really don't know where the plot is going and how these characters relate to each other. Watching the film, you feel like you're being fed a piece of puzzle at a time, and you hope they all fit together. In a way, they do, but at the end, you still kind of wonder about the meaning of the story. Their writing is crisp, if a bit too meticulous, relying on a lot of forced plot development and coincidences. Also, the Coen brothers seem to try a bit too hard to be clever and funny, but the script turns out manipulative and forced. There are some really witty scenes, but over all, it feels self-congratulatory.

photo6The direction is standard Coen brothers: fast-paced, intricate, and peculiar. The plot and the relationships between these characters unfold almost randomly (but of course, nothing is random). The Coen brothers has carefully planted the foreshadows and pivotal elements along the way -- in hindsight, that's the problem with the clever plot twists: they're too clever, too planned, too carefully orchestrated. Not much feels organic.

photo7In a way, Burn after Reading feels like another lackluster "clever" film of theirs, The Lady Killers. If you like quirky characters and subversive plot twists, you would probably enjoy Burn after Reading. If you prefer something more organic, with less cleverness and more heart, you may still enjoy it, but remember to burn after viewing.


Stars: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence
Running Time: 96 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 7

Total – 6.9 out of 10

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