Burn After Reading in much in the same vain as last week’s showcased film The Men Who Stare At Goats is a publicly panned and maligned film. Also both films have a star studded cast who venture into unfamiliar territory which may have propelled audiences to expect an entirely different movie. I consider Burn After Reading an overlooked little gem in the Coen Brothers impressive cannon of movies. I honestly do not know what there is to dislike about it, but I find a whole lot that’s going for it.
Burn After Reading is a tightly wound, slickly plotted spy comedy. Perhaps because it just came off the back end of their Academy award winning ‘No Country For Old Men’ that it took people a while to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humor of Burn. The irony is Burn is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends bad. Some of the last lines in the movie between the CIA officers sum up the farce which proceeded it and the nonsensical nature of events:
CIA Superior : What did we learn, Palmer
CIA Officer : I don’t know, sir.
CIA Superior : I don’t fuckin’ know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
CIA Officer : Yes, sir
CIA Superior : I’m fucked if I know what we did.
CIA Officer : Yes, sir, it’s, uh, hard to say
CIA Superior : Jesus Fucking Christ.
IMDB Storyline: Osbourne Cox, a Balkan expert, resigned from the CIA because of a drinking problem, so he begins a memoir. His wife wants a divorce and expects her lover, Harry, a philandering State Department marshal, to leave his wife. A CD-ROM falls out of a gym bag at a Georgetown fitness center. Two employees there try to turn it into cash: Linda, who wants money for cosmetic surgery, and Chad, an amiable goof. Information on the disc leads them to Osbourne who rejects their sales pitch; then they visit the Russian embassy. To sweeten the pot, they decide they need more of Osbourne’s secrets. Meanwhile, Linda’s boss likes her, and Harry’s wife leaves for a book tour. All roads lead to Osbourne’s house.
Like most Coen Brother’s movie I’m besotted by the writing and the intelligence by which they are able to derive a plot sequence which takes the most unexpected turns, and has slightly mocking eye for detail and creative violence. Despite its deviation from any predictable narrative in Burn the directors maintain a tight grip on the reigns to reassure the viewer there is method to this non-meta narrative madness. In similar mode to Inside Lewyn Davis as viewers we finish the adventure at the point at which we began as if the record is on a loop. It isn’t a traditional linear narrative as much as it is a cyclical one. The Coens move through their crossed purposes with speed and elegance. No plot holes – nothing goes amiss.
Burn After Reading is the funniest movie from the Coen’s since their The Big Lebowsky masterpiece. You could draw similarities to the massive TV sitcom hit Seinfeld and say that the plot is a smart excuse for a movie about nothing, although a lot of things are happening. Brad Pitt is priceless in his role as a gym junkie and the innocence of his character is so believable that I wondered how many more surprises this actor has up his sleeve. John Malkovich, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and the unnerving Tilda Swinton complete the package of this movie that feels as if it was made for the sheer pleasure of it.
Burn After reading IMDB Trivia:
- The Coen brothers (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) said they wrote the screenplay for this film while writing the screenplay for No Country for Old Men (2007). They would usually alternate every other day for each script.
- The Coen Brothers (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) wrote the character Osborne Cox with John Malkovich in mind…. Indeed, the Coen Brothers noted at a Q&A session at the Venice Film Festival that all the leading characters were written for all the leading actors, with the exception of Tilda Swinton.
- The screenplay for this film was featured in the 2007 Blacklist–a list of the ‘most liked’ unmade scripts of the year.