Burn After Reading (2008) – Ethan & Joel Coen (Friday’s Finest)


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.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Movies and TV
11 comments on “Burn After Reading (2008) – Ethan & Joel Coen (Friday’s Finest)
  1. Nadine says:

    What a great review! Definitely want to see it now.

  2. Clever Girl says:

    Not my fav Cohen movie, but it was good. They’re such good writers it doesn’t matter. Did you ever see Blood Simple?

  3. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Getting mind f***ed’s better than not getting f***ed at all, I think, lol ! ! !
    I remember seeing Burn and we had a good time, but for the life of me, until I read your review, I couldn’t remember the plot AT ALL. But your review brought back the warm and fuzzy feelings. Not my favorite of theirs, but worthwhile and enjoyable. Brad Pitt seems to get better with age, too, like wine, doesn’t he?

    One of my favs was Miller’s Crossing, even though we haven’t seen it in years. We always recall John Turturro when he was trying to get worm his way out of a situation, pretending to cry and break down, then he says smugly later, “All I had to do was squirt a few…” We hated that character–what a schmuck!! 🙂

    • I need your text captions for my comments in particular when using f***ed haha Now you’re going to hate me for saying this, but I would have thought that in this day and age AI to have automated to a large extent text captioning???

      I really like to rewatch Burn After Reading. It’s a lot of fun and there isn’t a dull moment. Like you, it’s not in my top tier Coen movies, but I certainly feel its underrated.

      Funny you mention that about Brad Pitt. As you would be aware he finally got an acting Oscar for the Tarantino Hollywood movie, but that part was tailored made for him. I actually thought Leonardo did a better job in his role. My favourite Pitt roles are Moneyball, Fight Club and Burn After Reading.

      Now you got me honed in again on Miller’s Crossing, which I have watched just the once, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve got it here, so I’ll rewatch it again soon enough. I can’t recall the John Turturro part. But John Turturro does smuck really well. He’s such a versatile actor.

  4. selizabryangmailcom says:

    I’m sorry–what’s text captioning? Something that automatically cleans up language?
    On a side note, I’m not shy about using “fuck” liberally both written or verbally. But hubby has started complaining recently, “That’s not very ladylike,” about the swearing, so I’m trying to rein it in…just SLIGHTLY. I reminded him that I was not a lady, nor did I profess to be one when he met me. That usually stops that conversation. But I AM trying to rein it in, lol ! ! !

    Yeah, Brad. Omg, Matt, don’t forget Snatch. Did you not see that and/or like it? The Irish accent he does in that….could not understand a word he said. But he was great!
    What about Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Seven? I guess there wasn’t that much “stretching” for his acting in those….but still good performances. Especially at the end of Seven, his amazing anguish and torture.

    Did you ever see John Turturro in the TV mini series The Night Of? He was SO good in that, subtle and layered and powerful. Same with the lead actor, Riz Ahmed, who’s turned out to be a fantastic thespian.

  5. I like this one. Coen fan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: