Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Brad Pitt
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: December 21, 2008

“Report back to me when…I don’t know, when it makes sense.”

Film ****

What I respect most about The Coen Brothers is their sheer eagerness to defy expectations with each new film. Having just come off a huge oscar victory for last year’s No Country For Old Men, which was their darkest and most violent film in quite some time, they’ve shifted gears back into black comedy mode with Burn After Reading. It reminded me of how they followed up their grim and dark Fargo with the stoner comedy/eventual cult phenomenon The Big Lebowski. The Coens are the true epitome of cinema variety.

What’s even more significant is that the Coens managed to do what at first seemed impossible. They have followed up the brilliant No Country For Old Men with a film that’s almost as great. I mean, let’s face it; No Country was a hard act to follow.

But Burn After Reading is brilliant for much different reasons. First and foremost, it’s obviously more comical in tone and nearly every character in the movie is a complete buffoon. At the same time, it’s quite an insane ride of a film with some surprising bursts of violence as only the Coens could deliver.

By the film’s end, I immediately declared Burn After Reading as the absolute best dark comedy to date from the Coens. That may be a controversial statement, but it’s my honest opinion. As much as I love Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and even Intolerable Cruelty, I found the mixture of hilarity and insanity better blended than in any previous comic outing.

Keep in mind, I’m not including the Coens’ more dramatic fare in that comparison. Their films should be divided into two types. The first being the dark comedies I just mentioned and the other batch would include the likes of Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country, which are all darker in tone.

The film is basically a tale of espionage and paranoia, only with the unique Coen Brothers touch. The plot itself is going to be a challenge to decipher. I may end up going super mad in paranoia like some of the film’s characters, but I’ll give it a shot.

It all starts with CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) receiving word from his superiors that he’s being demoted. This news frustrates him so greatly, that he decides to then leave the agency for good. His only desire in life is to possibly write a memoir of his days in the field.

Upon hearing this news, his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) slowly and secretly begins divorce proceedings. Their marriage has been dead for quite some time, and Osborne’s current unemployed status is a better reason than ever to get out of it, as she sees it. Besides, she’s engaging in an affair with Treasury agent and habitual womanizer Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

Before she slaps Osborne with the divorce papers, Katie’s lawyer advises her to get her hands on documentation of her husband’s financial status. She then downloads that information from Osborne’s computer, along with memoir material and possible intelligence details, to a CD. That same CD eventually finds its way into the hands of fitness gym trainers Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand).

Linda, insecure about her looks, is desperate to have some surgical procedures done to her body but is unaware that her job won’t help cover for the surgery. After glancing at the contents of the CD, Chad devises a plan to blackmail Osborne and help his close friend Linda. The plan is to exchange the disc for money, which can then go towards the desired surgery.

What is then set into motion is a series of insane events, which seem to result from the very moment Chad phones Osborne about the disc he has in his possession. Osborne, though way smarter than the blackmailers, doesn’t know what to make of the situation. And to complicate matters even more Linda, through an online dating service, ends up in an affair with Harry.

The plot is so difficult to explain in words, and I can’t even begin to imagine how Joel and Ethan wrote the story without getting confused in the process. However, watching the film and seeing the chain reaction of events occur is a different matter. It’s pure chaotic fun, with a number of great twists along the way, but is easy to follow as opposed to putting the plot into precise words.

The Coens always manage to nab a top-notch cast, and they may have assembled their most impressive lineup yet with Burn After Reading. First off, we have the ultra-superb George Clooney in his third collaboration with the Coens, resulting in I think his funniest performance yet. Following both Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that’s definitely saying something.

Clooney is never afraid of looking foolish on film and doesn’t have to do much as far as generating laughs. Plus, let’s be honest…how hard could it have been for him to slip into the role of a merciless womanizer? There wasn’t a single scene of his that didn’t generate at least one major laugh.

Brad Pitt should also be applauded for playing a role which basically required him to embarrass himself in every scene. Pitt has never been more deliriously goofy on film (that is…since 12 Monkeys, of course). The character of Chad is likely to go down as one of the most cheerfully idiotic characters in film history (the scene where he attempts to blackmail Malkovich face to face brilliantly illustrates this).

What’s more, Malkovich delivers a performance that’s right up there with his brilliant work in In the Line of Fire and Being John Malkovich (of course). And any film that can make Tilda Swinton look marvelously attractive should be filled with praised. I never found her attractive, but watching this film I realized that she’s rarely used makeup in her past films, and man does it make a difference this time around.

If anything, Burn After Reading is a major surprise in that I wasn’t really expecting it to be necessarily great coming off a stunner like No Country For Old Men. But in defying expectations, the Coen Brothers have managed to make a really fantastic and enjoyably insane mixture of espionage, slapstick, idiocy and bloodshed. Who else but the Coens could deliver so many wacky elements in one film and make it fantastic every step of the way?

Video ****

You can always count on a Coen Brothers film to feature a spot-on production, and this presentation from Universal takes advantage of this from beginning to end. The anamorphic picture is nothing but remarkable quality, with a tremendously bright, crisp and fully detailed image. I was surprised to find that frequent collaborator Roger Deakins wasn’t the cinematographer this time around, but rather Emmanuel Lubezki. At any rate, the cinematography is just as strong and results in a most phenomenal presentation.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix is quite excellent for what is mostly a dialogue oriented film. The unique music score from Carter Burwell, who has scored nearly all of the Coens’ films, is definitely a high point. Dialogue delivery is tremendous, particularly in quiet set pieces (CIA Headquarters) and the brief bits of intense violence play off quite effectively.

Features **

Included on this Universal release are three featurettes; “Finding the Burn”, “DC Insiders Run Amuck” and “Welcome Back, George”.


Burn After Reading is a tremendous piece of bizarre, paranoid comedy. And for the Coen Brothers, it represents their absolute best black comedy to date, which at this point is REALLY saying something. It’s also very much one of the best films of 2008.

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