Burn After Reading


Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by:Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins
Released: October 16, 2008
Grade: A

During the last two minutes of this film, I had a very wide smile on my face.  Just like they had done in films such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen brothers had crafted a witty comedy laced with dark humour.  I don’t know where they get their ideas from but this formidable team have perfected the art of storytelling and filmmaking.

There are a number of players in this ensemble movie.  Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) has quit his job at the CIA after being offered a demotion.  His superiors weren’t happy with his recent efforts and the fact that he has a drinking problem.  Osbourne plans on getting them back by writing a “tell all” book about his life inside the CIA.

Osbourne’s wife, Katie (Swinton), isn’t sympathetic.  She thinks her husband is a loser and the fact that’s now unemployed is the final straw.  Katie wants to instigate divorce proceedings against Osbourne so that she can protect herself financially and maintain her well-to-do lifestyle.  It will also allow her to settle down with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), the man with whom she’s been having a long-running affair.

Harry doesn’t share that same plan.  He’s not too keen on leaving his wife… or the other women that he’s been sleeping around with.  In fact, I don’t think Harry has any idea what he’s doing at all.  He’s neurotic.  His latest fling is with an older woman named Linda Litzke (McDormand) who he met on an internet dating site.  There’s a hilariously shocking scene where he takes her down to the basement and shows her an invention that he’s been working on.

They’re a good match because Linda is nuts herself.  She may work at a gymnasium but Linda hates the way she looks.  She desperately wants plastic surgery.  Unfortunately, it’s not covered by her medical insurance and she doesn’t have the money to pay for it.  Linda pleads with her boss (Jenkins) to give her an advance on her salary but he just can’t do it.

You might be asking, is there an actual story here?  Yes, there is.  Linda and her co-worker, Chad (Pitt), find a CD which has been left in the ladies locker room at the gymnasium.  On the disc are the memoirs of agent Osbourne Cox.  This dim-witted duo believe that when they return the CD to Osbourne, he will give them a sizeable financial reward.  When he refuses, it sets in motion a bizarre series of events with equally bizarre consequences.

I appreciated this film because it is so ridiculously “off the wall”.  It goes against everything you’d expect from a conventional movie.  It all revolves around a bunch of both fortunate and unfortunate coincidences.  Some people are in the right place at the right time.  Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  You’ll have to watch it for yourself to learn the fate of these unlikeable yet amusing characters.

In their last film, the Academy Award winning No Country For Old Men, I praised the Coen brothers for their great casting.  They know just how to find the right actor for each role – even the smaller ones.  The same can be said here.  Each actor is a little “over the top” with their performance but it’s perfectly in sync with the preposterous screenplay.  I hate to single anyone out but I have to say it’s the best performance I’ve ever seen from Brad Pitt.

There’s one similarity that this film shares with other Coen brothers movies.  That is… that you’ll either love it or hate it.  If you’re in touch with their warped sense of humour, you’ll instantly fall in love with Burn After Reading.  I can’t wait to see it again!