Burn After Reading

Review By: Michael Dance

Burn After Reading is a movie that, by design, doesn’t make any sense. It’s a made-up-as-they-went-along trifle that involves the fates of a handful of unlikable characters who do stupid things. Or maybe vice-versa.

The film could best be described as the Coen Brothers’ cool-down project after the heavy, psychological, Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. You could almost say history is repeating itself: in 1996, the Coens achieved mainstream fame and a handful of Oscars for their half-funny, half-harrowing, totally bleak thriller Fargo, then followed it up the next year with The Big Lebowski, a much lighter and very amusing comedy that has since become a cult classic.

Except that Burn After Reading, to my disappointment, is no Big Lebowski. That movie was like a screwball Raymond Chandler story, a mystery populated by endearing characters and some of the best dialogue the Coens have ever written (which is saying something).

The comedy’s still there in Burn After Reading. The Coens’ ear for dialogue is also there, although not used to as good effect. But Burn After Reading is kind of like Lebowski‘s evil, uglier cousin. Instead of characters who stick with us, who we fall in love and want to hang out with, we’re given a set of characters who are purposefully made to be (a) caricatures, and (b) unappealing.

Seriously; late in the movie there’s a scene where we see that a minor character is cheating on her husband. There’s no reason for the scene to be there at all; the character has almost no bearing on the story, and the scene is the last we see her in. It’s just that up until that point, we had no reason not to like her.

So why are the Coens actively trying to sabotage their story? I mean, I get the point: everybody’s unlikable and the story never amounts to anything. I just don’t get why that would be a good idea for a movie.

The story — which, it bears repeating, is about nothing and goes nowhere — follows a few gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) who find a disk containing the memoirs and financial records of an ex-CIA agent (John Malkovich). They try to blackmail him, and when that doesn’t work, they try to sell it to the Russian embassy — anything to get enough money so that McDormand’s character can afford four plastic surgery procedures.

Meanwhile, the CIA agent’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with a U.S. Marshall (George Clooney), who it turns out has affairs with a lot of people. Eventually, through an online dating service, he hooks up with McDormand’s character. And things go around and around and around…

Acting as a sort of Greek chorus to the unfolding plot are two other higher-up CIA agents (J.K. Simmons and David Rasche) who are keeping tabs on everyone involved, but don’t care much because the information on the disk isn’t that important.

Up to a point it’s all an entertaining enough trifle; the movie is funny enough to convince you that you’re having a good time while it happens. The Coens go to far, though, once people start getting murdered: the first time it’s a pretty cool scene, I’ll admit, but the second time is ugly, way too violent, and happens to perhaps the most sympathetic character.

But — whoops — the big joke is that we’re not supposed to care. I guess. Well, if we’re not supposed to care, why are we watching?

I’ll answer my own question: we’re watching the movie because it’s often very funny, which is why the grade you see below might be higher than you expected given that I’ve just trashed the film. The exchanges between the two CIA agents, in particular, bring the house down every time. And the performances are energetic across the board, with Brad Pitt also getting a lot of deserved laughs.

It’s just that, when you think about it afterwards, you might find yourself thinking that you’d rather not have seen it at all.

Movie Grade: C+


A dark spy-comedy from Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen. An ousted CIA official’s (Academy Award nominee John Malkovich) memoir accidentally falls into the hands of two unwise gym employees intent on exploiting their find.

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"I don't think you're dumb... I just think at times you're under-exposed to information." -Murphy Brown