Burn After Reading (2008)

A smart movie about stupid people, this is the Coens having fun with their material and cast.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
2008 | USA | Comedy/Crime/Drama | 95 mins | 1.85:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence

Cast: Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins
Plot: A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it.
Awards: Nom. for 2 Golden Globes – Best Comedy, Best Actress
US Distributor: Focus Features

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Fun
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Review #337

(Reviewed in theatres – first published 12 Oct 2008)

Spoilers: No

The Coens have been largely independent throughout their career. With a modest budget, they write, direct and edit their films, and are very, very good at what they do.

Since their razor-sharp debut in 1984 for the crime-thriller Blood Simple (1984), the Coens have been highly consistent, making idiosyncratic films that are always refreshing and entertaining. At the height of their creative powers, they have made valuable films such as No Country for Old Men (2007) and Fargo (1996).

The Coens are a strange duo. When they could have chartered a path to mainstream success, they choose to go down a different lane. The critical and commercial success of No Country for Old Men has made them hot properties again.

But instead of capitalizing their fame by choosing a high-budget and big scale project for their next film, the Coens have decided to direct a short, quirky satire-comedy about America’s leading intelligence body: the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).

“Osbourne Cox? I thought you might be worried… about the security… of your shit.”

Featuring an A-list cast that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt and John Malkovich, Burn After Reading is easily one of the best star-studded Coens pictures of the last decade.

The film’s storyline is complicated for the first half-an-hour, but the links between the numerous main characters become more clearly defined as the film progresses.

The most colourful of the bunch is Chad (played by Pitt in his funniest role to date), a goofy, dim-witted gym trainer who chances upon a disc containing undisclosed state secrets. The best performance comes from Malkovich in an over-the-top, foul-mouthed role to rival Mark Wahlberg in The Departed (2006).

At the beginning, the film zooms in from the stratosphere to inside the compound of the CIA headquarters. With an up-tempo soundtrack and unhesitating editing, the Coens are successful in setting the fast-paced mood of the movie inside the first minute. 

There’s more to Burn After Reading than it being vulgar, violent, and a comic farce. As the film zooms out from the CIA compound into the stratosphere again at the end, the question on our lips are: Just how intelligent is the Central Intelligence Agency? In a nutshell, this is a smart movie about stupid people.

Grade: B+




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