John Malkovich in Burn After Reading
John Malkovich dictates his ‘memwahs’ in Burn After Reading

They are two brothers who have a knack for combining genres and styles into hybrids that can only be described by using their last name as an adjective. Their films are set in a recognizable approximation of reality, but certain elements have been tweaked and exaggerated. Unexpected oddities are emphasized and repeated as motifs – within movies and between them – like the urgent clomping of footsteps or the climate controlled sigh of a door closing on an empty hallway. Here characters speak in strange, colloquial turns of phrase. Words have a musicality and, though their meanings are frequently mundane, they’re as carefully chosen and as repeatable as a line from Shakespeare.

What do these quirks mean? They’re a signpost that you’ve left the known world behind and you’re now adrift in the uniquely skewed universe of Joel and Ethan Coen.

Though their latest film, Burn After Reading, is set in Washington, D.C., it is also clearly rooted in this strange Coen-verse. It’s part spy story and part blackmail caper with elements of bedroom farce sprinkled in. Above all though, it’s a welcome return to comedy and easily the brothers’ most consistently funny effort since The Big Lebowski. Like all Coen films however, the normal rules of funny don’t apply. Here the humor comes not from jokes with punch lines and turns of plot, but through details and dialogue and character interactions.

Though there is plot to spare, this is probably the Coen’s most carefree tale. It is disciplined in that it doesn’t go off on some of the tangents the brothers seem to find so amusing, but it’s also almost entirely irrelevant. It involves a Macguffin (one with its own special ironies), but the story is itself a kind of Macguffin. It’s mainly a thin excuse to set the talented ensemble cast of disparate characters on a collision course. The comedy is in the conflict and how the characters are related is less important than the funny ways they interact.

Like the characters in nearly every other Coen film, those in Burn After Reading are united in not being nearly as clever as they think they are. In the blunt parlance of one Walter Sobchak, “They’re out of their fucking element.”

The first one we meet is John Malkovich as the amusingly abrasive CIA analyst Osborne Cox. He’s the smartest guy in the room and utterly exasperated by the rampant stupidity all around him. The Coens often use curse words like notes in a symphony and Malkovich capably upholds their tradition of amusingly slinging f-bombs.

Tilda Swinton is Cox’s bitchy and uptight wife, Katie. She’s the least memorable character of the bunch, but Swinton makes the most of it, lending Katie a suitably British upper-class brittleness.

George Clooney plays the affable, amorous and mostly clueless US Treasury marshal Harry Pfarrer. His obsession with sex is matched only by his fascination for attractive flooring. In both O Brother Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, Clooney tore into his roles with admirable gusto, particularly for a major celebrity and international sex symbol, but he didn’t quite seem to fit the Coen rhythms. Here he dials his performance down a notch and he feels more relaxed and comfortable.

On the other hand, Frances McDormand edges dangerously close at times to cartoon territory in her role as Linda Litzke, a lonely DC gym employee who dreams of being able to pay for thousands of dollars of plastic surgery so she can attract a better class of men through her online dating service. McDormand has a few moments that are almost as over the top as her performance in Raising Arizona, but fortunately she pulls back each time. Eventually, a genuine pathos emerges in Linda and she’s easier to warm up to.

Best of all is Brad Pitt who nearly steals the show as Linda’s hyperactive co-worker Chad Feldheimer. Sometimes an introverted and low-key performer, here Pitt is all gum-chewing nervous energy. Wearing his frosted duotone hair like a badge of stupidity, he digs into his character with the fearless confidence of someone who either doesn’t know he looks like a moron or doesn’t care. Combining some of the impish vigor of Tyler Durden from Fight Club with the hazy cluelessness of Floyd in True Romance, Pitt is at his most engaged and he’s a lot of fun to watch.

Rounding out the main cast is Richard Jenkins as Ted Treffon, the gym manager who quietly pines for Linda. Ted is one of those guys who has quietly led a life of nervous caution and it’s led him nowhere. Slumped over and wearing the look of a man haunted by a lifetime of failure, he may be the saddest character in the Coen oeuvre, trumping even William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard.

One of my favorite little moments in Burn is a sad one and it belongs to Ted. Having spent the film trying to confess his love for Linda, he’s devastated when she loses her temper with him. After she leaves the room, he makes a short, quick inhalation as though he’s literally swallowing his hopeless misery. It’s as close as he ever comes to breaking into actual tears.

In complete contrast to the cast, the cold look from Emmanuel Ubezki’s slick cinematography combines with the dramatically percussive score by Carter Burwell to lend Burn the surface feel of a straight-faced spy story. Against this earnest tableau, the absurd contortions and flailings of the actors are all the more amusing – especially since no one acts like they know they’re being funny.

Whether the A-list cast is enough to draw a wider audience remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that the peculiar flavor of Coen comedies is an acquired taste. If you haven’t appreciated the humor in their previous efforts, Burn isn’t going to convince you. On the other hand, fans should find plenty laugh about, particularly those who are more comfortable with the Coens as cult favorites than as critical darlings. Though Burn After Reading is unlikely to win any Oscars, it’s a welcome return to the brothers’ simpler roots and, like all their films, should reward repeat viewings. I’m already eager to see it again myself.

Burn After Reading. USA 2008. Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Edited by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (as Roderick Jaynes). Score composed by Carter Burwell. Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons. 1 hour 36 minutes. MPAA rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. 4 stars (out of 5)

80 Responses to “Review: Burn After Reading (2008) ****”

  1. He is, though he’s not at all wrong for appreciating that angle of BAR. This movie is going to feed into a lot of people’s opinions that the Coens are snotty intellectuals who hate their characters.

  2. Holy crap, I have to skip all of these comments right now, so please excuse…

    Great review, Craig, and the first one I’ve chosen to read. Funny that we saw it in a very similar light (and even used similar language), though I think you might have edged me by a half star or so. This is a key line: “the humor comes not from jokes with punch lines and turns of plot, but through details and dialogue and character interactions.” Agree on the first point, but diverge a little on the second. I think I almost enjoyed the characters in their own element more than I did when they were interacting (save for a few moments, ie, the car scene with Pitt and Malkovich). For example, I loved just observing Malkovich at home, Pitt in the closet, Clooney’s nervous tics, etc. A very small difference to be sure, but a noticeable one. Either way, this is definitely worth repeated viewings, and Pitt has earned my respect as a comedic actor in a new way.

  3. I’m a little relieved with each positive review from friends, even if my enthusiasm is a teeny bit higher.

    Though you enjoyed the individual moments, I think we’re still on the same page in that we agree the comedy isn’t punch line based and is therefore kind of hard to quantify.

    Speaking of that car scene….when Pitt is trying to act all tough and mysterious but we know he’s a complete fool. Classic.

  4. Has that scene not been addressed here yet?! It had the best line of the movie!:

    “You think that’s a Schwinn?!!?”

    Loved it.

    I’ll catch up on these later…

  5. ahahha…yeah.

  6. No Country is applicable to the war in Iraq or more broadly to the war on terror, but I wonder if most viewers will intuitively make those connections in 20 years? I think it’s similar to Taxi Driver, which at the time of its release some reviews equated with a response to the Vietnam War. In retrospect (for me), Taxi Driver is a character study of isolation, fear, and a self-destructive quest for control in an uncontrollable world. It applies just fine to the mid-1970’s or to 2008.

    While I think you can easily make those War analogies for either movie, neither movie acknowledges, directly or through obvious subtext, either conflict. On my first viewing, I was convinced that Iraq was a theme of No Country, but subsequent viewings have led me to believe I’m projecting my own concerns onto the film.

    I think it’s more accurate to say No Country addresses the loss of security and cultural understanding that 9/11 embodied for most Americans, but more broadly that same feeling could be applied to a number of points in the 20th century.

  7. I wasn’t thinking Iraq War/War on Terror in a more literal sense when reading No Country and watching the film. I don’t think the preoccupations and emotional tone found in the work of artists can avoid being in some way shaped by the predominant zeitgeist. So I’d be surprised if some level of connection didn’t exist. However, I’m often skeptical about confident sociopolitical analysis of films. Within any substantial work of art one can find a basis for inferring from and projecting into it a range of meaning. No one view is any less valid than another. But I personally think too much has been made of No Country as a sociopolitical commentary. The story in essence could have been conceived exactly as it is across several decades. And as Joel says, it’s likely to be enjoyed in the future well after the present zeitgeist has evolved into something different.

  8. I concur with all of that, Sartre.

    My position is sort of “in-between” the “yay” or “nay” arguments vis-a-vis the Coens’ sociopolitical strain (including No Country for Old Men). Their films have always struck me as uniquely American (which doesn’t mean they can’t be and aren’t appreciated by many others in the world at all), as they tend to excavate what are usually considered essentially American concerns and anxieties (frequently purified by the ongoing struggle between personal happiness and the allure of money in their work).

    So, while I see No Country for Old Men as a bold continuation and expansion of that and many other Coen theses, I think for some to describe it as a specific, possibly didactic statement about the Iraq War misses the mark; their interests are more permanent and amaranthine than that.

    Or so I think. ;)

  9. “Speaking of that car scene….when Pitt is trying to act all tough and mysterious but we know he’s a complete fool. Classic.”

    I’d hand him an Oscar just for that. Friggin’ hilarious. Frankly, Brad made the movie for me. His Chad was a tremendous success of zany abandon. Someone else made a big impression on me, ironically: Clooney! I thought his performance was delightful–reminiscent of Giancarlo Giannini at his cartoonish best (and that’s the highest compliment I can pay to someone since Giannini is possibly my favorite male actor).

  10. Wow Dorothy, I like the guy – Giannini – but have only seen him in a few relatively small supporting roles. Which of his film performances should I seek out?

    I’m not surprised that we essentially agree Alexander.

  11. Dorothy, I too give Clooney a lot of credit for his job well done here and can visualize the comparison to Giannini. It’s delightful to see Clooney inject so many risks into a role that might scare others away. I mean, his embodiment of that character is not very sympathetic a lot of the time and clearly exhibits potent psychological wiring problems. And he’s not pretentious about it. But he doesn’t stop there. In the scene where he finds Pitt in the closet, that’s real terror in his eyes as he rolls over and draws his gun — reminescent of Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs) when she’s battling it out with Buffalo Bill in that dark basement.

    “This movie is going to feed into a lot of people’s opinions that the Coens are snotty intellectuals who hate their characters.”

    I can see why you say that, Craig, but I’m not so sure. Each of the film’s many characters has a sympathetic side or at least one sympathy-inducing moment. The standout in this regard would be Jenkins in his climactic confrontation with Malkovich. Jenkins, sympathetic all along, really shines as a hero for love — he knows (unlike the others) that what he’s doing is foolhardy. But at least his motives are pure. The Coens give him this moment and he delivers.

    This sort of segues into what Joel, Alexander and others have been discussing about sociopolitical meanings in this and other Coens films. I subscribe to a broad view, such as that expressed by sartre, that the Coens avoid intentions specific to Iraq, the war on terror, etc., though such things are most probably enveloped in their themes.

    Yet BAR, for example, addresses many of our society’s institutions: big government, big insurance, the health & beauty megaculture, the Internet’s role in our quest for love (romantic or otherwise). By spotlighting all of these as they do, the Coens are revealing the total disconnects that are occurring — in all aspects of our lives and at all levels of society. Say what you will about the McDormand character’s blindness to reality, she’s managed to adapt to a broken system and turn it on its heels to her favor. With a little bit of luck, her “power of positive thinking” in the end sees her emerge as the heroine. (Whether she finds true happiness as a result of her cosmetic surgeries is really beside the point — at least in the context of this film; the Coens could always do further exploration like Fellini did with his wife, Giulietta Masina, in successive films.)

    Likewise, the JK Simmons character — not an unintelligent man — deals with an unfathomable situation as best he can, not understanding why but at least surviving intact until the next case comes along.

    I don’t know whether BAR is a culmination for the Coens. For now, however, it’s a fine disillation of everything they’ve done before it.

  12. Pierre “Each of the film’s many characters has a sympathetic side or at least one sympathy-inducing moment.” I agree, but I don’t necessarily think it will dissuade people who are predisposed against the Coens…and they are legion.

    Dorothy, I think Pitt was my overall favorite part, but they all have such great moments. I was just thinking of the party scene with Clooney gabbing and spilling food on the carpet and Malkovich is just fuming. No one says anything and there’s no obvious shot of the wreckage on the floor, but it’s all in the expressions.

  13. Pierre, your writing is superb. I hate to gush, but all you guys are such exemplary cinephiles. Love it.

    Sartre, you *must* check out the films Giannini made with Lina Wertmuller in the early 1970s. They made four pictures together: “Love and Anarchy,” “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Seven Beauties,” and “Swept Away” (these are the shortened titles, as Ms. Wertmuller gave her films quite the long titles…not a surprise if you discover what her real name is!).

    Of the four, “Seven Beauties” garnered the most success and Giannini received an Academy Award nomination for his work as Pasqualino. The film itself is a perfect example of gallows humor. And Giannini, well, his is one of the funniest, most heartbreaking performances ever put on film.

    “The Seduction of Mimi” is another triumph, though I did get lost in a lot of the political diatribes. Still, the humor, while somewhat perverse, is incredibly effective. So much so that Richard Pryor loosely based his film “Which Way Is Up?” on the Wertmuller comedy.

    “Love and Anarchy” is a departure for Wertmuller and Giannini; more dramatic and less flighty. Effective, but not as much as the two previous ones. I leave “Swept Away” for last because it really isn’t that great, with the exception of the performances. The idea that women need (and want!) to be beaten into submission is still as offensive today as I’m sure it was then. Still, the two gave us two perfect films and one nearly perfect one. Nothing shabby about that! Definitely check them out, sartre. And make sure to choose the Italian versions, not the English-dubbed ones!

    Here’s the opening sequence for “Seven Beauties”:

  14. Pierre’s writing is absolutely brilliant, Dorothy. The man is a genius.

    And Sartre, well he’s a genius too, and a man of exceeding character.

  15. Thanks a lot for the praise, Dorothy. And of course I trust you realize that Pierre is one of your biggest fans.

    “I don’t necessarily think it will dissuade people who are predisposed against the Coens…and they are legion.”

    Agreed. That’s why I was a bit surprised, like you, to hear that BAR did so well at last weekend’s box office. Maybe audiences like following the topsy turvy story line, relishing along the way at the stupidity of the characters as well as the near-clueless bumbling of mid-level government employees. And we’d be remiss to disregard the charming antics of Mr. Pitt and the outlandish piece of gym equipment created by Mr. Clooney.

  16. Yes Pierre, I think the inherent goofiness of the film on behalf of major celebrities trumps the underlying darkness of the movie and makes it more palatable.

  17. Also, not to muscle in on the love-in, but I’m huge fans of all of you. :)

  18. Thanks Dorothy! :-) I’m looking forward to catching up with these films and Giannini’s performances within them.

  19. I just came home from this a few minutes ago.

    A lot to digest.

    95-minute films do not come more packed than this these days, however, especially once it gets really rolling at about the thirty-minute mark.

    Malkovich gave my favorite performance. Clooney and Swinton from Michael Clayton, oh my. Floor fetish!

    I’m sure your review is great, Craig…

  20. Well, I actually liked Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou?.

    Terrific review, Craig. I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said. This was pure Coen Brothers, as you’ve pointed out, and I really enjoyed it. One of the things I love most about them is their sense of the absurd. For example the whole motif of Clooney building that chair for his wife and the scene where he’s destroying it are too ridiculous for words.

    The whole cast was excellent, but I think Brad Pitt was my favorite. He was just so funny.

  21. Brad Pitt with his highly classified shit was awesome.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Clooney in both O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty…there was just something about him that didn’t quite seem to jibe with the Coen vibe. He was too obviously Clooney doing an act for me…but that could’ve just been me.

  22. I think it was you, Craig. We know about your Clooney envy. ;-)

  23. Is that a nice way of saying “Man-crush”?

  24. No. There’s a difference between “man-crush” and wanting to be like a certain guy. Clooney envy. That phrase should be added to the lexicon of such terms. :-)

  25. hahaha….ok

  26. i keed i keed

  27. You didn’t disappoint, Craig–this is a sublime review: I really enjoyed the opening paragraphs particularly as your nothing less than perspicacious analysis of the Coens’ use of words hits the proverbial bull’s-eye.

    And I agree, Ted just may be the saddest character in the entire Coen canon.

  28. It is a great review, and I stated my own position after it was written, and saw it the following night with similar sentiments.

    But having said that I don’t think Craig’s position is as firm as it was. Translation: I would wager even money he would give it no higher than *** 1/2 today.

    I stick to my ****.

    There’s another great review of it up at CCC.

  29. With this, after taking it’s sweet time, finally making it to Buenos Aires, I took in a showing a couple of evenings ago. First thing I’d seen in the cinemas since… Tropic Thunder, I think, a month and a half ago. Anyways, I have to agree with the majority of the review. I thought the movie was just a blast, and, this might be the minority review here, I’d argue that it might just be the funniest thing the Coens have ever made.

  30. Yeah! I’m glad it clicked for you Michael.

    “funniest thing the Coens have ever made” is strong stuff indeed. It’s interesting how divided people are on the level of the humor. I’m in the middle somewhere (as I seem to be on so many things)

    Nevertheless, after two viewings, I also thought it was a lot of fun.

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