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USA 2008
Directed by
Ethan Coen / Joel Coen
96 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
3.5 stars

Burn After Reading

Synopsis: Several morons get embroiled in a ménage à cretin and general spy malarky.

“You're a Mormon. Compared to you we all have a drinking problem”.

With big stars and a bombastic score, Burn After Reading slyly sells itself as something, but the twist is that it’s just a pretty funny film about nothing. You could call it a Farrelly brothers film for smart people! But seriously, everything the Coen brothers do is meticulously planned and executed, and the film is a quite clever and nuanced misanthropic farce. In short, an entertaining popcorn variant of their more substantial predecessor comedies.

Much of the humour in the film comes from the slow unwinding of the plot’s inter-relationships and identities of the characters. It all begins with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a weary ex-CIA man writing a vengeful memoir. Through a series of unfortunate events, fitness trainer Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) brings about his undoing through her relentless pursuit of raising enough money for cosmetic surgery so that she can look good at the gym. Around this vortex swirls Osbourne’s ice-cold wife (Tilda Swinton), bluffing US Marshall (George Clooney), daffy sports trainer (Brad Pitt), baffled CIA superior (J.K. Simmons), dour Russian (Olek Krupa), and so on. Unlike some other Coen brothers’ films, there is no particular character whose choices drive the core events – it is instead the random interaction of disparate dumb events that brings about what one character describes as a “clusterfuck”.

The film is not kind to its characters, who are almost without exception terribly stupid. The moral fulcrum is Linda’s long-suffering boss Ted (Richard Jenkins), but he is not spared from the corrupting influences of idiocy and greed that buffet him. Combined with a script heavy on expletives, for some, the film might be too aggressively, and unproductively black in its world view. The misanthropy runs the risk of overwhelming the farce, unlike the Coen brothers’ more successful Fargo. (1996) Perhaps this is a risk faced in their films because the universes they create are always so intensely realised, and dramatically effective. It’s easy to forget these are caricatures.

The performances are typically outstanding, with Brad Pitt shining as an excitably vapid fitness nut. Apart from Malkovich, who, whilst competent in everything he does, is not particularly innovative with his familiar screen persona, the other actors all bring something new to the screen. Clooney’s character in particular has a strange mix of predilections, from a fixation on jogging after sex through to slightly terrifying home handyman tendencies.

Ultimately, J.K Simmons’ dour CIA boss brings the film together, struggling to make sense of the increasingly bizarre reports from the field. To sum up Burn After Reading, one could easily quote his words: “report back to me when it makes sense.”




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