Burn After Reading

Let me say right up front that I’ve never been able to properly digest a Coen Brothers movie after just one viewing. So anything I say about this one is probably just half of what I’ll think about it once I know it a little better. And I definitely look forward to knowing it better, so that says something right there.

Following their biggest commercial and critical success, the multiple Oscar-winning, violently bleak No Country For Old Men, the Coens have returned to another of their strengths, screwball comedy. But what struck me most about Burn After Reading is that it is as pessimistic about humanity — if not more so — than No Country.

(Minor spoilers follow, so read at your own risk)

This is a bloody farce that’s half political, half personal and all cynical. Just about every character in the film is lying, cheating or breaking the law in pursuit of some selfish goal or another. The exceptions are Brad Pitt’s personal trainer, who is far too dim a bulb to notice much beyond his immediate surroundings, and Richard Jenkins’ gym manager, who is motivated by simple love. Needless to say, they aren’t rewarded for their innocence.

More than anything, this film is an absolute clinic on great comic acting — it’s the kind of film for which ‘Best Ensemble’ awards are made. Pitt, Jenkins, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton… all deliver first-rate work that will go completely ignored by “serious” critics and award groups.

I’d also like to highlight two performances that particularly stand out even among this group of masters. John Malkovich is pitch-perfect as the vulgar and frenzied Osbourne Cox, a disgruntled former CIA man whose misplaced writings set the plot in motion. It’s the best work he’s done since his genius turn in Being John Malkovich. And J.K. Simmons, recently so wonderful in Juno, practically steals the movie in just two scenes as the CIA director who can’t believe the “clusterfuck” his agency is embroiled in.

Funny, black-hearted and full of surprises, Burn After Reading is another triumph for arguably the best filmmakers working in Hollywood today. It’s not on a level with their very best work (what is, really?) but it’s a more than worthy addition to a brilliant and eclectic filmography.

6 thoughts on “Burn After Reading

  1. Amy says:

    I agree with you on just about everything you say here, from the need to view this film again before venturing to comment fully on it to the recognition of Malkovich and Simmons as the two MVP’s on a team of Pro-bowlers.

    The one thing I’m uncertain about is your last comment, for I fear what you are categorizing as “their very best work.” If, as I fear, you are thinking of Academy approved fare such as Fargo and the not-even-written-by-the Coens No Country for Old Men, then I disagree. If you’re not referring to those films, I’m intrigued. Which films iyo constitute “their very best work” – Raising Arizona? Blood Simple? Miller’s Crossing? My gut tells me that after multiple viewings of Burn, we’ll be holding these characters and plot turns and hilarious lines in the same high esteem we hold those other Coen masterpieces. Regardless, I look forward to the multiple viewings.

  2. Clay says:

    I’d put the following films on my list of the Coen’s “very best work” (in no order):

    Blood Simple
    Raising Arizona
    Miller’s Crossing
    The Big Lebowski
    No Country For Old Men

    If I had to pick just one, it would most likely be Miller’s Crossing, with Raising Arizona a close second.

  3. BURN AFTER READING was fun, and I agree with you, very pessimistic. I loved the meetings between David Rasche and J. K. Simmons.

    If I were to rank the Coen’s best, I’d say their top five would be:



  4. Clay says:

    As for the “Academy-approved fare” … I can understand singling out No Country For Old Men because it was a very faithful adaptation, and so much of what makes the Coens great is their original characters and dialogue.

    But Fargo? That is a “genuine” Coen Brothers movie through and through. Wonderful characters, dark humor, memorable lines, absurd situations and garish violence. In fact, Fargo is the film Burn After Reading reminded me of most (the main differences being Burn is more slapstick and Fargo has a more positive outlook because Marge prevails).

  5. pegclifton says:

    I thought the movie was hilarious and agree that J.k. Simmons stole the movie with his two scenes. Richard Jenkins was wonderful, and I hope this will be his year with “The Visitor”.

  6. Amy says:

    I also thought Burn After Reading was most like Fargo. Far from meaning to dismiss Fargo with my earlier comment, I meant to celebrate Burn as being equally worthy. In fact, as I walked out of Burn, I wanted to see it and Fargo again.

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