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Burn After Reading

January 6, 2011

Finally I’ve done what I thought would never happen and that’s watch a bad Coen Brothers movie. Burn After Reading isn’t just bad either, it’s awful and blows my mind that it was so highly praised upon its release. However I feel the praise came more from excitement that the brothers made a follow up to their astonishing epic No Country For Old Men, than for the movie itself. The best sentence to describe Burn After Reading comes from a character discussing the overall predicament of a situation and herein the plot of the film; “Jesus what a cluster fuck.”

Burn After Reading is one of the those films that I just don’t get. I don’t understand the overall plot, the motivation of the characters, who the audience was meant to align with and the film’s direction, but for the sake of this review I’ll attempt to decipher the code in order to explain why I hated it so much. Burn After Reading plays out like a screwball comedy and like screwball comedies of the past, the overall story doesn’t make sense and situations just happen for the sake of comic relief or in the Coen’s case, shock and surprise. The problem with the screwball comedy genre is that it’s the worst genre of comedy invented as I have yet to watch a film in screwball comedy’s defined prime that has made make me laugh or even made sense.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, the stories evolve around kooky situations that escalate with further quirky circumstances happening throughout the film. For example the god-awful “classic” Bringing Up Baby in which Katherine Hepburn plays Susan Vance, an annoying and slightly bitchy character who falls for a gawky soon-to-be married archaeologist David Huxley played perfectly/terribly by Cary Grant. Instead of a romantic comedy about Susan’s awkward attempts to woo David, the film becomes an annoying farce in which ridiculous situations take place like her accidentally stealing his car, losing his precious dinosaur bone, missing her brother’s pet leopard Baby, and a slew of other unfunny circumstances. And although through the entire film David tells Susan how much he hates her and how awful of a day he has had because she walked into his life, he nonchalantly has a change of her in the end and they marry.

Burn After Reading is slightly even more ludicrous. CIA Analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malcohvick) is fired from his job after his peers are worried about his love for the sauce and he is accused of being problem drinker. Upon losing his job Cox’s cold unsympathic wife Katie (Tilda Swanson) decides to blindside him with a divorce, while she is unbeknownst to him cheating with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). While preparing for the divorce, she copies Osbourne’s personal files, possibly including his progressing memoir, onto a disc which is falls into the hands of gym trainers Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) who assume the codes are secret government documents. The two attempt to extort money from whoever they can, including The Russian Embassy and Osbourne, for Linda’s obsessive and expensive desire to receive plastic surgery. A whole mess of people are followed, being followed, cheating on spouses and divorcing but instead of developing the personal matters of each character, the film focuses of the idiotic attempts of extortion and screwing each other over.


The entire A-list cast is wasted on inconsistent uninteresting characters. I wasn’t sure if Pitt was playing an overtly flamboyant homosexual or an eccentric imbecile. When he’s not being a caricature of the ‘Hollywood gay,’ discussing the attraction of Linda’s prospective online suitors, obsessing over his looks and dancing to himself, he’s childishly attempting to be a serious spy on a mission; describing the information on the disc as “numbers and dates and numbers and dates” and “highly classified and secret service shit,” making it hard to interpret who or what his character truly is. Clooney could have made Hfarrer a suave humorous charmer but instead plays him as a jittery overplayed asshole and McDormand plays a woman so unintelligibly self-depraved she allows her doctor to talk her into four major surgeries as well as a trivial vaccine scar removal.

Burn After Reading is an entire mess of pointless over the top situations involving a group of the most annoyingly aloof characters known to film. One of few commendable elements of the film, aside from Malkovich’s acting, is the Coens’ impressive use of sound. The mixing of sounds is astonishing such as loud clanks of shoes on a long stretch of hall or the sound of silence followed by the loud pop of a gun and intense music. However, visually the film leaves much to be desired due to its amateurishly overt use of extreme low shots as well as the choice to let certain scenes run seconds longer than necessary, making a possibly funny scene awkward. Whether Burn After Reading was intended to be a black comedy, a modern day screwball, or just a post-modern experimental film that wasn’t supposed to make sense, it failed on all attempts and was just annoying dribble. Burn After Reading is without a doubt my least favorite Coen Brothers film so far and film in general and adds to the list of films I dislike staring George Clooney… which I am discovering more and more of.

AVOID IT. In fact, burn before watching.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 11, 2011 7:45 PM

    >great review!

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