Burn After Reading (2008)

Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, David Rasche, J.K.Simmons

The most respectable pair of siblings working in Hollywood are at it again in creating something unexpected and preposterous – Burn After Reading is a film that will hardly be on the “best of Coen brothers” lists, it will probably leave most of the audience in WTF mode after watching it, but you can’t deny that the Coens are having lots of fun with this one. Especially after the darkness and hopelessness of their last masterpiece No Country For Old Men, the Coens decided to take a left-turn and offer us something that is light, so “light” that is completely and utterly pointless, which they whole-heartedly admit in the film’s finale.

First and foremost, Burn After Reading makes fun of everything. It mocks itself, it mocks the Coens, it mocks the “beautiful” Hollywood stardome (Clooney and Pitt do a bold move by creating two moronic, but entertaining characters that are the opposite of the majority they have done in the past), it mocks our fears and paranoia of thinking everybody is watching us, but it especially takes a jab at the oh-so-serious Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum spy thrillers. There is dramatic “action” music (courtesy of Coens’ long-time collaborator Carter Burwell) while nothing is happening, there is a ridiculous CIA-related plotline where nobody of the intelligence operatives seems to give a shit, a shocking twist where it seems that the film will get into higher gear, but it just returns into its general slow-paced mood. The obligatory political subplot is simplified and full of caricatures, while it ultimately leads to an anti-climactic resolution. You want tension like you get in the Bourne or Jack Ryan movies? Burn After Reading has none.

All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that the film completely works in this context. What it does lack is the good old memorable dialogue and black humour that was the milestone of the previous Coen comedies (The Big Lebowski being the primary example). I laughed maybe once, smirked a couple of times, but the entertainment aspect of the film left me wanting more. Sure, both Clooney and Pitt give very good performances (Pitt will surely get a lot of attention for playing a goofy, naïve and utterly limited fitness instructor), but John Malkovich is too over-the-top and phony and not the least memorable as he can be. It probably has more to do with the material he was given. Same goes for Tilda Swinton, while Frances McDormand, although creating a character that’s probably the most human of them all, goes into silly mode more than a few times. David Rasche, better known as Sledge Hammer, makes a great pair with the always reliable J.K. Simmons, in one of the highlights of the film. In the end, a solid black comedy with some great performances, but not even close to being one of the more memorable and impressive Coen efforts, but when you look at it - wasn’t that the point?

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