Burn After Reading (2008)
Written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Country: USA | Run Time: 96 min
By Colin Hart
Certain directors’ works warrant a longer look. The Coen brothers are two of my favorite filmmakers, and yet I still think they are somewhat underrated. This is a longer and more in-depth look at something worth talking about—one of the Coens’ most underrated films, the comedy Burn After Reading.
This is not a typical review, then. It’s more of an in-depth analysis, complete with spoilers, speculations and opinions. A deep dive, if you will.
Every once in a while, the Coen brothers—two of the greatest filmmakers, let’s face it, of all time—like to let loose, get some high-profile stars together and pound out a screwball comedy. Like a classical pianist clanking out some honky-tonk; like a pro football player tossing it around in the backyard. The stakes are lower, but the fun is all that counts.
The laughs don’t stop coming. A classic Coen-esque web of self-paranoia and delusions-of-everyman-grandeur pit a disgraced former CIA operative (Malkovich), a sex-addled dummy (Clooney) and a boneheaded fitness junkie (Pitt) on a collision course in our nation’s capital.
Three separate stories—Malkovich’s sour revenge, Clooney’s womanizing, the plight of the employees at local gym Hard Bodies—eventually splinter off in a number of directions, with appearances from the Russian Embassy, a lovelorn gym manager (Richard Jenkins), mysterious men in black and a homemade pleasure machine. Through it all, the CIA watches with a prescient eye.
All the loose ends and stray bits come together in that perfectly uncanny Coen brothers’ way, even though the ending is typically ambiguous. I always find it ironic that Paul Thomas Anderson adapted a Thomas Pynchon novel, while the Coens themselves adapted Cormac McCarthy. Pynchon’s zaniness would be perfect for Joel and Ethan, but I wouldn’t have it any other way—No Country for Old Men and Inherent Vice are both masterpieces by their respective filmmakers.
It’s amazing that the light and comical Burn After Reading was released only a year after the intense and bloody No Country. Within the Coen filmography, they are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Of course, they both bear the trademark Coen stamp, but they couldn’t be farther apart.
Joel and Ethan Coen have never been particularly flashy in their directing; consistently measured, controlled, smooth, relaxed. Together, the brothers are always able to cull the best performances from their solid casts; true actors’ directors with easygoing attitudes. They place their strong character players into their intricate plots and let them go to work. With Burn After Reading, the stars come out to play. And for the Coens, the star power has never been greater.
The home-run cast includes John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and JK Simmons, but the main draws are George Clooney and Brad Pitt—two towering egos humbled by the CoBros’ choice to cast them as a pair of lamebrains. Clooney and Pitt have never been more lovably dumb. They are a far cry from the smooth-talking bank robbers of Ocean’s 11. In fact, they only share the screen once—more on that later.
Clooney is Harry Pfarrer, essentially as dimwitted as he was in O Brother, Where Art Thou? But instead of silver-tongued jail-breaker Ulysses Everett McGill, he is a fast-talking cooze-hound. He’s in bed with everyone (literally) and connects all the main plots with his post-coital five-mile jogs. He continuously does that stunned George Clooney gaze, the one where he swings his head back and forth with wild eyes and exaggerated motions, getting well-earned laughs every time.
Brad Pitt is Chad, whose role is minimal but memorable. He’s a trainer at Hard Bodies, who’s full of himself but not in a cocky or arrogant way (like Malkovich’s character). He dances as he’s throwing a medicine ball, he dances as he’s in the car waiting to break into someone’s house. His head may be empty, but it’s in the right place. There has never been a more un-Pitt role played by Brad Pitt. He’s perfect for it. It’s a joy to watch.
Linda Litzke (McDormand’s character) is an annoyingly self-centered Internet-dater. That’s how she ends up in bed with Harry (who is also in bed with Cox’s wife, and many others). She doesn’t always have the funniest lines, but she is hilariously clueless (“I am an American citizen and will not stand for this kind of treatment!”). But I can’t help but feel for her at times, how lonely she is.
Malkovich steals the show as Osbourne Cox, a character as sarcastic and pissy as his name. Malkovich is an actor who can play himself and still be tremendously funny—just look at Being John Malkovich. He essentially does just that here. He is given free range to go on well-worded rants and raves against the pile of misfortunes that befall him. His well-timed lines of matter-of-fact anger are among the funniest in the entire film. Malkovich expertly uses his theater experience to his advantage when playing comedic roles in film.
The hard part is discerning which character is truly the dumbest, and therefore, the funniest. Harry works as a deputy U.S. Marshal, Chad and Linda work at a gym, and Cox worked for the CIA. No matter, the Coens say, they are all one and the same—oblivious and thick-skulled.
I’ve repeated that this is an extremely funny movie (the perfect comedic length, too). I guess you have to be attuned to the Coens’ aesthetic to understand the subtler jokes, but it should be quick to catch on. The Coens are masters of black comedy. Simple lines of dialogue become hilarious just with the way they are said. The inflections, the pauses, the facial expressions, the reactions. It’s all perfectly timed for maximum effect.
Even the labyrinthine plots of Coen brothers’ films tend to carry a humorous weight to them, the connections between the various threads becoming stranger and stranger. Burn After Reading contains a Grade-A MacGuffin. The unmarked CD found on the Hard Bodies locker room floor leads to everyone scrambling around, yet not knowing exactly what they are looking for. The Hard Bodies’ employees aren’t even sure as to the contents of the CD, which are unmarked documents with endless numbers. “I think this is the shit,” Chad says to Linda in his naïve tone. “The raw intelligence.” A series of blackmail and mistaken identity ensues.
Naturally, the CD is nothing important. When Cox says to his wife, Katie (Swinton), that he fears someone stole his memoirs, she exclaims, “Well why in God’s name would anyone think that’s worth anything?”
A casual aside later in the film reveals that the CD wasn’t even as important as Cox’s memoirs—the tape belonged to Katie’s lawyer and a new copy was easily made.
Perhaps more so than any other filmmakers, the Coen brothers place a premium on setting. It often becomes its own character—the snowy tundra of Fargo, the lazy LA of The Big Lebowski, the 1960s Jewish suburbia of A Serious Man. Burn After Reading doesn’t rely on setting as much as previous Coen films, but it still plays an important part.
The paranoia of mid-2000s Bush-era America is exemplified by these crazy goings-on amidst the backdrop of Washington, D.C. Who’s watching? Who’s really who? Am I safe? Information overload has led to a supreme lack of clarification. Twice in the film, we pull out of the D.C. suburbs to CIA headquarters, where a top head (J.K. Simmons) tries to make sense of it all. He can’t. Yes, the government is always keeping a close eye, but does it have a clue what’s really going on? Not really.
The Coens emerged from the postmodernist generation of filmmakers, along with Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater. Coen-esque plots are postmodern by nature, but Burn After Reading tackles big themes of postmodernism head on—a general distrust of mass-communication society.
Soon enough, the plot starts to close in on itself. In an extremely unlikely twist, Chad is shot dead by Harry, point blank. It’s one of the biggest twists the Coens have ever pulled, and it’s just as shocking a moment as Ned Stark’s beheading in Game of Thrones. It is obviously Burn After Reading’s single most memorable scene—a seismic tonal shift in a film that had no previous sense of violence.
The entire scene is peerless. Chad, as part of Linda’s latest cracked-egg plan, is searching the Cox residence for more “incriminating” files. Harry, returning from a run, rushes upstairs to shower and dress, while Lance hides in the closet. The camera angles from within the closet, where Chad hides within the suit jackets, is claustrophobically tense and realistic. Never at any point, however, do we think Harry will be so shocked that he will shoot Chad in the head. It actually was alluded to earlier in the film, but Harry talks so much and so fast that we thought it was just part of the act, not a Chekhov’s gun. Who knew he would pull the trigger when the moment of training kicked in?
Harry seemingly goes insane by the end, discovering Linda’s connection to Chad and suddenly seeing everyone as an undercover spy. And Osbourne Cox, well, he ends up viciously murdering the only empathetic character in the entire film, Richard Jenkins’ affectionate gym manager, who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The film ends in J.K Simmons’ CIA office, where they have diffused the situation (Cox in a coma, Harry on a plane to Venezuela, Linda Litzke receiving her cosmetic surgeries free of charge) but are still unable to make sense of any of the events that have transpired.
Simmons reacts indifferently to news of Cox’s coma. “Is he dead? If he wakes up we’ll worry about it then,” he shrugs. At the very end, he muses on all that’s happened.
“What did we learn, Palmer?” Simmons asks. His partner is unsure. “I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.”
A Coen brother film with seemingly no meaning isn’t a Coen brother film, now is it? Well, you try and tell me what the end of Barton Fink is all about. This is one of the Coens’ least ambiguous films, not much of a message, but a central theme of paranoia and a distrust of the intelligence community runs throughout.
This is a comedy, after all. The message is that the laffs should keep coming, which they do. This is a hilarious film, jam-packed yet concise, re-watchable as any in the Coens’ catalogue.