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September 17, 2008

FILM REVIEW: Burn After Reading Follows the Coen Brothers Tradition


By Nathaniel Shockey

Burn After Reading was not as good as some of the Coen brothers’ other creations, but it was still pretty damn good.


The writing was typically unique, fresh and absurd – with an emphasis on absurd. The essence of the movie was found in its absurdity, as it followed around a group of people who would probably seem normal, provided you don’t know them behind closed doors. And were it not for a misplaced disc containing what appeared to be top-secret CIA information, this group of people probably would have continued to live ostensibly normal lives.


But as the Coen brothers have described in movies such as Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country for Old Men, it only takes a nudge to push seemingly normal over an edge to which they were much closer than anyone ever realized.


The casting was great, with effective performances running from the primary characters to the secondary ones. If you have also grown tired of watching Brad Pitt and George Clooney playing roles contrived in order to congratulate themselves on their incalculable coolness, you may find some relief in this picture, with Pitt especially. Playing a personal trainer with shifty eyes and a pendulum-like emotional state, he achieves a hilarious balance between stupidity and aloofness. John Malkovich, playing the CIA agent who is fired for alcoholism, is wonderfully volatile and hilariously angry. It’s not a huge divergence from roles he’s played in the past, which could explain why he does such a great job. J.R. Horne, who plays a divorce lawyer, is hilarious, which is as much a credit to the writers as it is to Horne.


Many of the characters have a tendency toward being caricatures, which the Coen brothers probably intended. But regardless of who’s responsible, this tendency detracts from the reality of the film. And believe me, there is a cutting realism in this movie.


There were times when it was downright depressing. Fargo was similar to the feel of this movie except it stayed truer to the believability of the story. Burn After Reading features a guy who obviously knows nothing about anything but working out, a woman (Frances McDormand) who bulldozes her way through dating web sites and is willing to take confidential U.S. information to the Russians in order to make the money needed for four different types of plastic surgery, a man who cheated on his wife and his mistress (and also goes through online dates like M&Ms), an alcoholic ex-CIA agent who quits his job to write his memoirs and a few more absurd characters who I might as well allow to surprise you on their own. The comedy was insufficient relief to the discomfort of observing people who aren’t that much more absurd than we are.


OK, I’m sure you’re perfectly normal, but we all know people who are just as bad, or worse, than the ones in this movie. And if you think you don’t, you probably just don’t know them that well.


The plot of the movie is as twisted as spaghetti, but by the time it spirals past coherency, we realize that the bizarre and confusing details really aren’t the point. To help us with the plot and the point, the Coen brothers offer us two CIA agents, a boss and an inferior who reports back to him about the details of these ridiculous characters. Their role in the plot is to follow around the ex-CIA agent’s lost disc, but clearly their actual role is to help the audience catch its breath.


They only had two scenes in the movie. The first is about a third of the way in, when the inferior informs his boss about the lost information, which they conclude is unimportant. The boss tells him to follow the characters around and report back “when it makes sense.”


By the end of the film, when the characters actually start killing each other, the final scene between the two incredulous CIA officers takes place. They ask each other, “What did we learn?” and the answer is, “I don’t know.”


But judging by this and other films by the Coen brothers, I think the lesson they’re teaching is that people are pretty messed up. There is one redeeming character in this movie, and that has become the average of this writer/director-combo.


It is well written, well acted and well shot. But don’t expect to leave the theater laughing for very long.


Three stars out of four


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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