Burn After Reading (2008) – Appearances….can be deceptive

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When it comes to the black comedy genre, there is no denying the fact that the Coen Brothers have no equals. Their ability to conjure up outlandish situations, colorful dialogues and buffoonish characters in their screenplays is awe-inspiring. Burn After Reading is no exception and this follow-up to their 2007 Oscar winning No Country for Old Men sees them revisiting the same territory that they explored in films like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty. Burn After Reading is easily their funniest film since The Big Lebowski.


The film is the Coen Brothers’ version of a spy film spoof and even though it’s a comedy, the storyline is as convoluted as some of the spy thrillers of the 60s. As the film opens, a CIA analyst Osborne Cox (played by John Malkovich) is notified by his superiors that he is being demoted. He is told that the reason for this is his drinking problem. This agitates him and he quits. His wife Katie (played by Tilda Swindon) does not take this news very lightly and she is agitated as he is when he tells her that he is planning to write a memoir. Katie is having an affair with a former U.S Marshal and Treasury Department employee Harry Pfarrer (played by George Clooney) and both are contemplating leaving their respective spouses. Pfarrer is revealed to be a serial womanizer who would screw anything that moves.

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Meanwhile, a gym employee with major self-esteem issues named Linda Litzke (played by Frances McDormand) is hoping to get a raise so that she can finally go and get some plastic surgery done on her. She is leading a lonely existence and is constantly on the lookout for prospective partners on internet dating sites. When her dim-witted co-worker Chad Feldheimer (played by Brad Pitt) discovers a CD that belongs to Cox and has his work-in-progress memoir in it, Linda sees this as an opportunity to finally make some money. She and Chad come up with a scheme to blackmail Cox. Linda’s manager Ted Treffron (played by Richard Jenkins) has a crush on her and he makes matters worse for himself when he decides to find out what Chad and Linda are up to. And trying to make sense of all this is a high-ranking CIA official played by J.K Simmons.

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This is a story that is filled to the brim with idiotic characters. The Coen Brothers called this film the third part in their “Idiots” trilogy that comprise O Brother, Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. The characters all seem to be so sure of themselves and see themselves as smart but they are clearly not. The ridiculous ideas they come up with take them from one hilarious situation to the next. The winner here, for me, is without a doubt Brad Pitt. He, just like the others, is totally cast against type and seems to be having the time of his life playing a complete moron. He gets some of the funniest scenes in the film, especially the scenes with him and John Malkovich “negotiating” their little deal. It had me laughing endlessly. I never get tired of that scene.


The Coen Brothers has a knack for writing scenes that shock and make us laugh at the same time. The scene where Clooney finds Pitt in his closet is one such scene and it had me rolling on the floor. Only the Coen Brothers can pull off a scene like that. Equally absurd are the parts written for McDormand, Clooney and Malkovich and they all seem to be so at ease in their respective roles. Malkovich’s Osborne Cox often finds himself saying “What the fuck?” repeatedly because he often finds himself in “What the fuck?” situations. This is the first time that Malkovich has worked with the Coen Brothers and I hope to see him work with them again. Clooney is an actor who is not afraid to make a fool out of himself and it’s no wonder that the Coen Brothers asked him to star in all three films in their “Idiots” trilogy.


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