Burn after Reading 4.0 stars

Burn after Reading movie poster

The Coen brothers revisit their favored stupidity theme: Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski (that one above all), O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the secondhand Ladykillers, at least the Llewellyn Moss protagonist in No Country for Old Men. Back to the well once more. The placement of this timeless theme within the Washington, D.C., intelligence community is, however, highly strategic, calculating, revitalizing, resonating, and, well, intelligent. (The memorable line from the original Manchurian Candidate swims up from the depths: “Intelligence officer! Stupidity officer is more like it.”) The central theme has been interlaced with secondary themes of deception, discontentment, self-delusion, double lives, so that while the film is unmistakably a comedy, it’s a pretty deep one. And regardless how repetitive the theme, there is no slacking off in technique and execution. The fast hour and a half is consistently, uninsistently funny, with only a rare lapse in taste (a homemade marital aid, a couple of splashes of Scorsese-esque gore) and never really a lapse in tone. And although the regular and reliable Roger Deakins has been replaced with Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, most noteworthily), the cinematography doesn’t suffer, with its crystal-clear air, its fine-line focus, and its scythe-like camerawork, angling slightly upwards, attacking from all sides, intermittently cutting a path in a spurt of purposeful fluidity. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons. 2008.

Duncan Shepherd

This movie is not currently in theaters.


3KITMOM Sept. 5, 2008 @ 11:26 a.m.

Okay. I saw "Burn After Reading," but I don't get it. Maybe it's me. Or not. The Coen brother's latest effort was Coen-ish, good sets, gratuitous violence. This one has no story. There were outstanding performances from all the actors. George Clooney - well, George was George. Tilda Swinton was brittle; Richard Jenkins his usual sweetie; John Malkovich scary, really scary-mad, from the first frame he appears in. Frances McDormand was like your best girlfriend, with such a great expressive face. Communication is 15% verbal. And Brad Pitt was the best wanna be hero, just flat-out fun to watch, as the gym rat (call him mousie) one handle short of a jump rope. I did not like the shocking surprise of the violence, and I still wonder what it was about. Bottom line: The bad guys got theirs, I guess. Behave yourself, or they'll getcha!


richinsd Sept. 14, 2008 @ 11:02 a.m.

Burn After Reading with all the stars, Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich, Swinton, Jenkins, & Marvel made a lot of us in the filled theater crack up quite a bit. There were mixed reviews on this one. This is your typical nut case movie, where most all the actors act like total space cadets and then some. I really think most of us didn't get it. Stupid, you be the judge, if you care to spend the money watching Brad Pitt act like a total doofus and look the part too, then be my guest.


Gian Ghio Sept. 20, 2008 @ 9:48 p.m.

I'm not sure where to start with this one. Was it a comedy? Because I wasn't laughing. Was it a suspenseful spy movie? Because I wasn't on the edge of my seat in anticipation. I had such high expectations going into this movie because of previous good experiences with Ladykillers and O' Brother Where Art Thou? Maybe that was the problem. I expected something funny. It was the Coen brothers after all. I think they made a few mistake with this one. The biggest was probably casting Brad Pitt into the role of the goofy gym trainer sidekick next to Frances McDormand. He is too good an actor to playing such a moron. Clooney's dirtbag role was also miscast although he tried his best. John Malkovic was the lone standout of the bunch.

There were a lot of people laughing in the theater but I wasn't one of them. Is that because people laugh just because they think they should be laughing at something or are they laughing because they genuinely found the movie funny? I highly doubt it is the latter because this wasn't a funny movie save for three scenes. The Pitt/John Malkovic car scene was probably the funniest part of the movie, followed by the Clooney/McDormand basement scene and then later the park bench scene. Even then, all it got out of me was a little chuckle. The ladies sitting next to me however where laughing up a storm. I'm pretty sure one of them wet her pants. Really? You ladies thought it was that funny? The Coen brothers should heed the advice of the CIA director when he says at the end of the movie, "What did we learn from this? I guess never to do it again." Joel and Ethan Coen, please don't ever do this again. Thank you.


mepg41 Oct. 8, 2008 @ 12:43 p.m.

Loved the movie. Yes, it was strange, unusual and funny! That is what the Coen Brothers are good at doing. Pitt was looney, jiggy and brainless, and he did it so very well. I enjoy off beat films in my life. Different can be good!! Great cast, and very entertaining.


asbestos Oct. 9, 2008 @ 7:50 a.m.

I saw the movie and thought that what they should of named it "Forget after Watching.


Challen Oct. 9, 2008 @ 9:59 a.m.

Duncan, the only explanation I can think of for your four star review of this movie is that you'd been to the dentist that day and the nitrous hadn't worn off yet. This wasn't even really a movie, it was a cartoon made with "real" people. It wasn't "about" stupidity, it was stupid. I think it would have been much improved if they had just dubbed the voices using Disney characters....Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand would be Mickey and Minnie Mouse. George Clooney, Goofy of course. It's an incredible comment when you have to admit that John Malkovich was the sanest person in the film. That's got to be a first. From the beginning this story was a Kafkaesque nightmare for his character. OK..my date's comment on leaving was "Well, I guess they had a contractual obligation to get another movie out right away." At least we had great sex later so the the evening wasn't a total loss.


Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Oct. 16, 2008 @ 10:17 a.m.

Another free pass from Duncan to the Coen Brothers. When other movie makers go "Back to the well once more," you criticize them for it. But old Ethan and Joel get a pat on the back. (Plus a friendly slap on the butt for their left wing ideology.) I remember you used to think Goerge Clooney among the worst actors on earth... but wait, he was in a Cohen Bros. movie. And, what do you know, he's not so bad after all. At least try not to sound like a shill for these guys, Duncan. I understand that your job requires you to swim in the torrent of sewage that flows south from Hollywood, and therefore talent like the Coens' must seem like a clean refreshing mountain stream. But still... try to maintain some objectivity here.


GeorgeM Oct. 31, 2008 @ 4:20 p.m.

As long as the Brothers Coen continue mining the bureaucratic inefficiency, plaguing government bureaucracies within the District of Criminals, they'll never go out of business!

Having lived and worked inside the D.C. Beltway, the Coens have nailed it, once again proving everything is connected.

For residents of the Left Coast, who saw this movie, perfect attendance is all you were expected to get!


MarkScha Jan. 23, 2009 @ 11:50 a.m.

Finally saw this one at home. I thought it worked well as a satire of the spy genre. I also enjoyed a whole cast of familiar talent going off in unfamniliar directions, particularly Brad Pitt. ***


Mango April 21, 2009 @ 1:17 p.m.

This movie was shown on our cable station’s On Demand channel for free. Otherwise I would not have watched it. Lucky me! It turned out to be hilarious and had a great, unforeseen plot twist, although it was a little more violent than it needed to be. At first it seemed like I was watching a bunch of completely separate stories, each of which was good and weird and funny in its own way. Later, I came to realize that all of the action is intertwined, but in ways that weren’t expected. I'm not usually a fan of Brad Pitt's movies. I have nothing against Brad Pitt, it's just that his movies tend towards "shoot 'em up" action movies that are more suited to young male viewers with Blockbuster tastes. In this movie Brad Pitt plays a very un-Brad Pitt-like character, which turned out to be one of the funniest characters I've seen in a long while. He will probably remind you of someone you know. It may be one of your embarrassing co-workers, it may be one of your annoying relatives, and hopefully not, but he may just possibly remind you of your best friend's dorky husband. He was ridiculously awesome. And then there was John Malkovich. He's creepy, angry and loud, exactly the way you like him, although I could have lived without seeing the site of him in a bathrobe (hint: pasty, white legs). Then there's Frances McDormand who will conjure up images of your sweet, misguided friend who's always making the wrong choices and ignoring the obvious, to her (huge) detriment, but to our delight. There is a lot going on in this movie, but it moves along in a "Mad Mad Mad Mad World" sort of way to its ultimate crashing crescendo.


tedburke Aug. 22, 2017 @ 1:20 p.m.

There's been a bit of grousing about whether the Coen brothers have set themselves on cruise control since multi-Oscar wins for No Country for Old Men,the current evidence being the new comedy, Burn After Reading. It's familiar character terrain for Coen fans, this time focused on a gaggle of Washington DC nitwits and imbeciles who try to get the upper hand when a canned CIA analyst's memoirs , on CD, is found by an attendant on the locker room of a local gym. What follows when the CD gets into the hands of two inordinately self-seeking body trainers, wonderfully kinked performed by Francis McDormand and Brad Pitt , is the sort of comedy the Coens excel in, a detached though acute view of a many characters operating agendas from myopic cocoons who are frantically pursuing their own ends regardless of consequences. Theirs is a comedy of situations where nothing is thought-through by the characters, everyone is looking for the short cut, and all the assumptions crash, burn and sometimes are fatal when the gravity of collected self-regard takes hold and takes over.

Their genius is to make you laugh at all this no matter how unsympathetic the characters might be; the unsympathetic nature of the figures in Burn After Reading is the charge leveled against the brothers this time out, as well as some complaints that they're borrowing from their other movies, particularly Fargo and Oh Brother , but to the first challenge mostly I'd counter that being able to "relate" shouldn't be the sole basis to enter a film's narrative. What matters is how well matters are brought out, made compelling; Burn is compelling, if nothing else, but more so, it is a film by masters. They are are practioners of Hitchcock's techniques of voyeur-noir --their camera notices everything, notes each gesture, figure of speech, constructs different scenarios as to where the plot might go, and then allows a particularly fragile house of cards to collapse.

Shallow as they be in life's purpose, their quirks, their world views are fully delineated and detailed. This has the sort of aesthetic remove that made Nabokov an effectively satiric novelist; wouldn't a Coen Brothers' version of Laughter in the Dark be an ideal match up of sensibilties? Nabokov, always in love with people's schemes , their rationalizations, and the erotic inflection when lust and avarice influence the chatter and buzz phrases, would like the Brother's merciless technique and distance; he'd appreciate the way their movies can get in close without embarrassment in order to expose a huge vacancy where something like a soul should be.


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