Burn After Reading

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

You can surely credit the Coen brothers for not playing safe. Their last film No Country For Old Men won them Oscar acclaim for what was in essence a grim genre exercise. It was guilty of what the Coen brothers are often criticised for: being style over substance. But the main thing was that it was “serious” style and done impeccably well so it was easy to give that film the rubber stamp of approval. Burn After Reading is a completely different monster all together intentionally clashing spy-movie elements with irreverent screwball comedy.

The story is convoluted but suffice to say, it begins with John Malkovich playing a spy who gets fired and, miscalculating the importance of his life, begins work on a tell-all memoir about his time in the CIA. His wife, played by Tilda Swinton, is plotting to divorce him and run away with George Clooney a sex and exercise addict who also works as a government agent. A disc holding the memoirs falls into the hands of two gym employees played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand. Pitt’s character mistakenly thinks that he’s discovered highly sensitive government secrets and McDormand’s character (Linda Litzke) sees a good opportunity for blackmail to pay for her planned plastic surgery operations.

In the opening scenes, the Coen brothers deliberately set the audience up for a serious spy movie. It’s all brooding camera work and thudding self-important thriller music The big joke of the movie is that no-one has a master plan, everyone is stupid and the stakes are ridiculously small. You get the sense that the Coens could make a kick-ass Bond film in their sleep but they really excel at comedy. John Malkovich is brilliant as an arrogant and condescending fool as you’d expect but Brad Pitt really steals every scene he’s in as a gym instructor with the IQ and demeanour of a golden retriever. He’s kind of a one joke character – constantly dancing to some unknown song on his iPod and chugging down a Boost Juice – but every simple thought that goes through his head registers on Brad Pitt’s face.

The targets of satire are many: manipulative divorce lawyers, government bureaucracy, consumerism, the cults of body image and exercise. This film is basically a cavalcade of morons whose varying professions and class backgrounds are transcended by the core value of idiocy. It’s a fairly damning indictment of contemporary culture but one cannot help but wonder if the Coen brothers think there is anything worth saving.


Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)


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