Burn After Reading


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Burn After Reading
"It is not as though we have not seen this sort of comic crime-gone-wrong chaos from the Coens before, but there is no-one who does it better."

The latest work by Joel and Ethan Coen opens (and indeed closes) with what might be called a God's-eye-view of the world - a vision of the Earth from space, followed by a slow pan-and-zoom over the US down to Langley, Virginia, and then down further into the roof of the CIA Headquarters building where Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is about to be rudely demoted. Pompous about his skills as an analyst but in denial about his dipsomania, Osborne's tragedy is a lack of the kind of universal perspective that is promised by the film's opening shot. Put simply, he doesn't see it coming – and nor do any of the other all-too-mortal idiots in this dark caper of human blindness.

Take Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married federal marshall currently working on a "top secret" project in the basement of his house. Harry is an acquaintance of Osborne but more than just an acquaintance of Osborne's "cold stuck-up bitch" wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) – not that she is the only middle-aged woman with whom he is philandering. He boasts that he has not discharged his revolver in 20 years of service – but with a mystery man watching his every move, you can bet that it will not be long before Harry is reaching for his weapon.

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Or take fortysomething Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), desperate to improve her erotic opportunities through extensive plastic surgery, yet unable to see that Ted (Richard Jenkins), her manager at the Hardbodies Fitness Center, is deeply in love with her just the way she is. Seeing – or thinking that she sees – a way to pay for the procedures in a disc full of supposedly sensitive "intelligence shit" that her dumb-assed colleague Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) has just discovered, Linda embarks on a hare-brained scheme to sell it to any buyer, unaware that it is in fact merely a draft of Osborne's memoir. "Why on earth would anyone think that's worth anything?", as Katie puts it with characteristic directness.

"Keep an eye on everyone, see what they do," the CIA officer (David Rasche) is told by his superior (JK Simmons) on the unfolding case. "Report back to me when, I dunno, it makes sense." Burn After Reading may be set in and around the intelligence (and fitness) community of Washington D.C., but intelligence is rarely to the fore in this comedy of errors, where the most banal of needs or most apolitical of actions lead to hilariously disastrous consequences that none of the characters ever fully (or even partially) comprehends and that no-one – not even the viewer – can quite foresee.

With Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) and even The Ladykillers remake (2004) as precedents, it is not as though we have not seen this sort of comic crime-gone-wrong chaos from the Coens before, but the fact remains that, for all their imitators, there is no-one who does it better. Unlike their previous, Oscar-winning film No Country For Old Men (2007), here the emphasis is firmly on raising as many belly laughs as possible - but that is not to say that the antics of their "league of morons" are entirely devoid of broader resonances.

For what could be more political, in these times of increased surveillance and dependence on intelligence-gathering, than the spectacle of paranoid, clueless agents, not to mention civilians, driven by concerns more personal than patriotic, and generally engaged in chasing their own shadows? This is Bush's America writ large, as the triumph of blinkered idiocy. So chuckle away, by all means - but also watch this with open eyes, and you might just begin to suspect that the absurd collateral damage on show here is a worrying reflection of the world that we all live in, where the dumb lead the dumber.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2008
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When a disc believed to contain sensitive information falls into the wrong hands, the intelligence services rush headlong into a comedy of errors.
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Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons, Olek Krupa, Michael Countryman

Year: 2008

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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