"Burn After Reading" offers bleak, hilarous worldview

by Eric Melin on September 12, 2008

in Print Reviews

For the on-camera review with clips from the movie, click here.

Before the critical triumph of the surprisingly warm-hearted black comedy “Fargo” in 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen’s critics had accused the brothers’ movies of being cold and detached—exercises in cinematic virtuosity, for sure, but lacking empathy for their characters and instead reveling in any opportunity to put them through the wringer.

brad pitt burn after readingThose critics are going to hate “Burn After Reading.”

Is it cynical? Yes. Is it mean-spirited? Of course. But—is it funny? Hell yeah.

I guess the answer to that last question really depends on your sense of humor. “Burn After Reading” is certainly not the upbeat romp that its trailers make it out to be. The Coens wrote this at the same time they were adapting last year’s Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men,” and it looks like that film’s existential dread rubbed off on this one in a big way.

Like “No Country”‘s harried protagonist Llewelyn Moss, middle-aged fitness club employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) must make some hard and fast choices when an opportunity to improve her life presents itself. A CD-Rom that may contain classified CIA secrets has fallen into the hands of her friend and co-worker, a hyperactive knucklehead named Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). When Linda decides to blackmail the disc’s apparent owner, fired agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), it sets her on the road to getting that image-improving plastic surgery she wants so badly.

In a series of events too convoluted and ridiculous to believe, Linda is suddenly mixed up with a perverted womanizer (George Clooney), Cox’s icy wife (Tilda Swinton), and a lonely boss who has a crush on her (Richard Jenkins). The plot is a slow build towards a manic conclusion, full of shocking violence and shockingly bizarre revelations.

clooney mcdomand burn after readingThe Coens’ wicked black humor is on full display here, but I would argue against those who say that the writer-director team have no empathy for their characters. It is easy to get involved with the plight of poor Linda, who is so desperate to be noticed that she can’t notice the people who like her the way she is. Malkovich’s CIA consultant may be self-righteous, but when it comes to getting fired, who can’t relate to that? Even Clooney’s philandering husband really seems to love his wife—he just can’t help himself.

What will piss most people off is the bleak and hopeless worldview that the Coens subscribe to. In a typical Hollywood script, the bad characters are either punished or redeemed and the good ones are allowed a moment of triumph, be it literal or symbolic. Like “No Country for Old Men,” the world of “Burn” seems indifferent to the plight of the average downtrodden American citizen, even if it was their own weaknesses that got them into this jam in the first place.

Hey, at least the Coens have the good humor to be able to laugh in the first place. It’s easy to read a “News of the Weird” column in the newspaper and laugh at the guy with a terrible diet who was killed by his own flatulence. It’s another thing to spend an entire movie getting invested in pathetic characters portrayed by likeable actors, and to have it all blow up in your face, leaving you to wonder why you bothered.

If “No Country” left us to ponder the notion of the random and cruel ways that our seemingly limitless freedom of choice can relate to the bigger picture, then “Burn After Reading” puts an exclamation point on the pointlessness of it all. Whether you are able to laugh at the gratuitous inelegance that the Coens’ universe depicts will depend on you. The last five minutes of “Burn After Reading” had me in hysterics.

Humphrey Bogart famously said in “Casablanca” that “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Joel and Ethan Coen believe that too. They just have a way more thoroughly sick and twisted way of pointing it out.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 RCM September 12, 2008 at 1:00 am

Great! I’ll be seeing it tomorrow.

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2 RCM September 12, 2008 at 1:00 am

Great! I’ll be seeing it tomorrow.

Reply

3 Josh September 12, 2008 at 9:03 am

I saw it last night, and like most Coen films for me, i feel as if i already need to see it again to grasp the the full worth of the film. It wasn’t as good as “No Country For Old Men” in my eyes; I liked it, but i think slightly less than you Eric. Maybe a minor rock fist up for now. Clooney and his neurosis was hilarious, i loved the espionage feel to the movie, and the payoff at the end was definitely worth it… but to really like everything else, i think i’ll have to see it at least one more time.

Reply

4 Josh September 12, 2008 at 9:03 am

I saw it last night, and like most Coen films for me, i feel as if i already need to see it again to grasp the the full worth of the film. It wasn’t as good as “No Country For Old Men” in my eyes; I liked it, but i think slightly less than you Eric. Maybe a minor rock fist up for now. Clooney and his neurosis was hilarious, i loved the espionage feel to the movie, and the payoff at the end was definitely worth it… but to really like everything else, i think i’ll have to see it at least one more time.

Reply

5 Ashly September 12, 2008 at 9:09 am

the pic of brad pitt at the top with a bloody nose and bleached tips is enough for me..

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6 Ashly September 12, 2008 at 9:09 am

the pic of brad pitt at the top with a bloody nose and bleached tips is enough for me..

Reply

7 Walrus Films September 13, 2008 at 3:41 pm

“Because it is a comedy, the Coens’ new film … is something of a palate cleanser for the brothers after the rigors of the Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men,” Kenneth Turan writes in the Los Angeles Times. “But because it’s a Coen brothers film before it’s anything else, this is about as dark and nihilistic as comedies are allowed to get before the laughter dies bitterly on your lips.”

Read more Reviews for Burn After Reading, and watch the Movie Trailer -

http://www.walrusfilms.com/movies/burn-after-reading.html

Reply

8 Walrus Films September 13, 2008 at 3:41 pm

“Because it is a comedy, the Coens’ new film … is something of a palate cleanser for the brothers after the rigors of the Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men,” Kenneth Turan writes in the Los Angeles Times. “But because it’s a Coen brothers film before it’s anything else, this is about as dark and nihilistic as comedies are allowed to get before the laughter dies bitterly on your lips.”

Read more Reviews for Burn After Reading, and watch the Movie Trailer -

http://www.walrusfilms.com/movies/burn-after-reading.html

Reply

9 RCM September 13, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Okay, I had to wait till today to see this and really, I liked it quite a lot. It just had me laughing pretty hard and my cynical film-geek heart was well attached to the C brother’s usual bleak tone. Many people have been discussing rather Malkovich, Clooney, or Pitt owned this movie, and all three where funny, but J.k. Simmons and his deadpan spot is what made it for me.

Reply

10 RCM September 13, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Okay, I had to wait till today to see this and really, I liked it quite a lot. It just had me laughing pretty hard and my cynical film-geek heart was well attached to the C brother’s usual bleak tone. Many people have been discussing rather Malkovich, Clooney, or Pitt owned this movie, and all three where funny, but J.k. Simmons and his deadpan spot is what made it for me.

Reply

11 RazorFine September 14, 2008 at 1:38 pm

You liked this more than I did. I enjoyed myself, but it was a little too goofy for me – though I absolutely loved the scenes between JJ Jameson and Sledge Hammer!

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12 RazorFine September 14, 2008 at 1:38 pm

You liked this more than I did. I enjoyed myself, but it was a little too goofy for me – though I absolutely loved the scenes between JJ Jameson and Sledge Hammer!

Reply

13 Clark September 29, 2008 at 5:58 am

I think this was the Coen’s best film to date.
And Brad Pitt is just hilarious as Chad!

Reply

14 Clark September 29, 2008 at 5:58 am

I think this was the Coen’s best film to date.
And Brad Pitt is just hilarious as Chad!

Reply

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