Burn After Reading

Movie title: Burn After Reading (2008)
Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producers: Tim Bevan, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, David Diliberto, Eric Fellner, (Exec.) Robert Graf
Starring: George Clooney “Harry Pfarrer,” Frances McDormand “Linda Litzke,” John Malkovich “Osbourne Cox,” Tilda Swinton “Katie Cox,” Brad Pitt “Chad Feldheimer,” Richard Jenkins “Ted Treffon,” Elizabeth Marvel “Sandy Pfarrer,” David Rasche “CIA Officer,” J.K. Simmons “CIA Superior.”
Genre: Comedy/Romance/Action/Thriller
Summation: A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it for profit.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Disjointed


In high school, I had a 94 average in biology class. I was a GT student in English. But in most subjects, I never tried, and if I did, I tried for a while and did well, but soon gave up. Since that time, I’ve come across students who were amazingly smart and academically inclined, but who, like me, never finished the job or maximized their potential. Getting around to doing a task is a problem for some, but often, getting around to finishing the task is an even bigger one. It’s one thing to start out strong and another thing to finish strong.

Well, a strong finish is what Burn After Reading doesn’t offer. It starts out strong and gets funnier and funnier, right up until the last thirty minutes of the film, at which time, it proverbially tips the king over as in a forfeited game of Chess and gives up. It just gives up, quits, ending on a totally unaccomplished note. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it on the big screen.

There is a certain frustration that comes in assuming a movie will go somewhere and accomplish something, only to find that it doesn’t. Here’s a heads up: the ending of Burn After Reading is weird, disjointed, and it goes nowhere, so don’t expect it to. A resolution to a movie and a plot with such kicking characters was more than called for.

The hilarity really begins shortly after the characters are introduced. From the start, they are unique and likable and well defined. For certain, this is one of the funnier movies I have seen. The only thing that puts a damper on it is the hilarity-one-moment-suspense-the-next style of filming.

The best acting came (expectedly) in the forms of Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), but the on-edge and neurotic performance of Malkovich as Osbourne Cox is one-of-a-kind, making the movie rip-roaringly funny. The script could have done nothing without him, nor without Frances McDormand as the confidence-lacking, middle-aged, horny, self-esteem case with an attitude, Linda Litzke. There was some brilliant writing here, the kind that involved multifaceted human emotions.

Everyone in Burn After Reading is in a different place in life and they face different decisions. Adultery, divorce, self-image issues and plastic surgery considerations, paranoia, and even cyber-trolling play their parts in the plot that makes this movie so sharp. The deep-seated message of the movie gives it an even greater appeal when it addresses the two-faced nature of the human animal and our propensity to take sides to get what we want.

Much like the movie 300, which could have done far better had it remained true-to-life instead of getting into D&D-level fantasy, this one loses its way by stepping out of the bounds of comedy and into the action and thriller categories. You just don’t try to make someone getting graphically shot in the head funny, nor should having such a scene be expected to do anything but subtract from the plot. The same goes for having a gym manager get axed to death.

Too bad the abrupt and broken ending did things in. Going the happier route of bringing things to a nifty resolution could have pulled the movie over into being “A” material, but the direction the film takes doesn’t allow it to unleash all of its potential comedic genius. And that is a shame. My eyes widen when I wonder how successful this movie would have been had it remained true to the comedy genre.