Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading

Film review by: Witney Seibold




            I can’t tell if “Burn After Reading” is a failed screwball comedy, or if it’s a failed spy comedy, but either way, it’s a mess. The Coen Brothers, usually so skilled at dark comedy, and mixing death with humor, don’t seem to know what real point they wanted to make with this strange, twisty, CIA farce. The Coens managed to assemble a top-flight cast, and, by the look and sound of the film, did have something on their mind, but I’ll be dipped if I can figure out what it is.


            Where to start? Letsee. John Malkovich plays a CIA office worker neamed Osbourne Cox. Cox is the kind of snotty douche who bothers to pronounce the word “memoirs” with the correct French accent. He gets to say “memoirs” a lot, too, as he decides to write his when he’s fired from the CIA for drinking too much. He is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton), who plays the cold Brit that Swinton is often hired to play. Katie is having an affair with charming lecherous dork Harry (George Clooney). Harry is often seen with strange sex-related contraptions, and has a habit of meeting many random strangers through dating websites for affairs. He’s married, too, but we don’t see his wife a lot in this film. One of the women Harry is seeing is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a gym worker who is trying to use her insurance money to get liposuction and a boob job. She’s so focused, in fact, on this surgery, that she ignores the earnest advances of her sweetheart boss (Richard Jenkins). Linda is best friends with Chad (Brad Pitt), another gym rat, who knows a lot about vitamins and energy drinks and bicycles and workout clothes, but little about anything else.




            The story proper begins when Chad and Linda find a computer disc, containing a first draft of Osbourne Cox’s memoirs. Thinking that it’s sensitive material, they attempt to blackmail Cox. Cox has no interest in being blackmailed, and knows he is dealing with amateurs, but never out and says that the information in worthless. Linda and Chad end up going to the Russian consulate. Clooney also gets mixed up in the blackmail plot somehow. Eventually we get to see the all-watching central CIA men (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons) just throw their hands up in frustration.


            This is not a farce. This is a traffic jam of incident. All the characters are either wrong about their actions, or baffled as to the actions of others. Meanwhile, the audience is the most baffled of all. It’s odd that the Coens can move from such a great film like “No Country for Old Men” to another oddball comedy. To be sure, there are some funny lines, and some good surprises in “Burn After Reading,” but none of them contribute to the film’s ineffable center.


            The best thing about this film is, strangely and unexpectedly, Brad Pitt. Pitt reminds us that, in addition to being a famous movie star, is also, occasionally a talented actor. Pitt ought to play more supporting roles, as he seems to do better when he’s not the leading man. He plays Chad perfectly, constantly dancing in place, upbeat, and joyously empty-headed. I wish the movie would have spent more time with Chad.



Published in: on March 16, 2009 at 7:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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