Archive Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

Sometimes the most genius films are the ones that draw the most criticism. “Burn After Reading” may never reach the elite of IMDb top 250 and confuse and bother a lot of viewers, but if that’s you, then you simply have yet to watch enough Coen brothers films to understand and appreciate the deep intelligence that this film possesses though it acts like it doesn’t have.

Famous in their comedies for creating over-the-top idiots who concoct schemes way over their heads, the Coen brothers have made no exceptions with “Burn After Reading.” This time everyone’s missing something, usually the common sense part of the brain, but the trouble is caused by two gym employees (Pitt and McDormand) who come across a CD with CIA code on it belonging to an ex-CIA analyst (Malkovich), thinking they can blackmail him and make money.

Surrounding all that are other characters vital to the story: Malkovich’s wife (Swinton) and her lover (Clooney) who is having multiple other affairs regularly in spite of his marriage. Much of the conflict and plot in this actually revolves around the shambled marriages of these couples and actually not on the CD, which of course is all part of the point.

Like all Coen brothers films, including their award-winning “No Country For Old Men,” when you sit back and think about this film everything seems to click. It’s difficult to explain without revealing the plot, but the important thing to keep in mind when viewing this film is that it plays on our perceptions of movies being great mystery thrillers that you have to try and figure out. You also need to remember that it’s supposed to be a comedy. The Coen brothers will do everything to trick you into thinking it’s more than just a comedy, but it’s not.

Comedy is also not a word used lightly. This is easily the funniest Coen brothers film short of “The Big Lebowski” and what’s even better is it has guys like Pitt and Clooney playing complete goofballs unlike their usual typecast. This is easily the most enjoyable part of the film. Actors like McDormand, Malkovich and JK Simmons continue to provide the Coen brothers more great talent for their gem of a script.

The Coen brothers want you to take “Burn After Reading” seriously and will use all of Hollywood’s standard smoke and mirrors to align this film with your mental framework about movies (suspenseful music, dramatic and thoughtful camera angles, etc.) but the ability to step back and understand the directors’ intent here is the key to loving this film instead of liking or being completely confused by it.

4.5/5 Stars

Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton


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