BURN AFTER READING
When a computer disk belonging to recently resigned and embittered CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is found in the ladies toilet at a Hardbodies gym in Washington, co-workers Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) believe they have a rare chance to make big money selling it back to him. Meanwhile, womanizer and ex-Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is having an affair with Osborne's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), and trawls the internet for other vulnerable women - including Linda, by chance, who is insecure about her body, which is why she wants to the money to pay for various cosmetic procedures. Yet there is a man who finds her attractive, her Hardbodies manager Ted (Richard Jenkins). As she and the hapless airhead Chad try to flog off the disc to anyone who'll buy it, they stumble about causing endless trouble for everyone, not least themselves.
Review by Louise Keller:
A dizzyingly enjoyable turn by the Coen Brothers that toys with espionage, adultery, blackmail and murder with a darkly comic edge, Burn Without Reading is a compelling combo of political thriller and sex farce. 'Don't sweat on the small stuff; it's all small stuff', we hear, as lives are turned upside down, inside out and back to front in unexpected situations when nobody knows anything nor do they know who anyone is, nor what anyone is after. Confused? Of course you are. But that's the point, and the juxtaposition of drama and black comedy makes this an exhilarating ride. It's a great conceit, and the Coens have recruited a dream cast headed by the ever-watchable George Clooney and Brad Pitt in an unexpectedly quirky performance.
The opening sequence at CIA headquarters in Virginia sets the scene, when John Malkovich's CIA analyst Osborne Cox is fired - on account of his drinking. It's good to see Malkovich used to capacity again and he makes every scene count. We are then introduced to the other key players, starting with Clooney's happily married but compulsive philanderer; the formidable Tilda Swinton as Katie his hard-nosed adulterous partner; Osborne's wife, Frances McDormand's plastic surgery obsessed Linda ('I have gone as far as I can go with this body'); and Brad Pitt's hilarious ultra-dumb fitness instructor Chad Feldheimer, with the badly bleached tips, who chews gum, slurps his soft drink and puts the 'd' into the word 'dumb'. There's also good support from Richard Franklin as Linda's lovelorn colleague, who wishes she would notice him instead of prowling the internet dating rooms - and J.K. Simmons as the CIA Chief who has no idea what is going on.
Everyone is spying on everyone and we have a ball watching them. There are many memorable moments, but none more so than the scene when Pitt's bumbling would-be blackmailer Chad phones Malkovich's Osborne in the middle of the night, professing to be a Good Samaritan, resulting in a riot of a bungle. Ethan and Joel Coen seem to be totally in their comfort zone for this punchy, black film that defies categorisation, but guarantees a good time.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It begins as a typical spy story, down to the zoom from outer space to CIA HQ in Langley and digitally keyed opening credits, but Burn After Reading soon blossoms into a veritable garden of genres, all blooming nicely beside each other, intertwining and cross pollinating to produce weird (but not grotesque) and wonderful new strains. There is satire aplenty, comedy, relationships, and plain crazy fun as intelligence gathering characters (intelligence is relative here) come face to face (or something) with bumbling amateur blackmailers.
The film has a freewheeling quality about it, thanks to the Coens' wacky screenplay and the perfect cast for it. George Clooney is smarmy and insincere but entirely likeable as he squirms his way through an affair with ice princess Katie (Tilda Swinton); Brad Pitt delivers a vacuous Chad that's as good as David Wenham's outrageous turn as the low life Johnny The Spit, in Gettin' Square; Frances McDormand is a firecracker as Linda, who is desperate for a face lift, boob job, tummy tuck, bum lift and arm-flab cut; John Malkovich is over the top as the over the top ex-CIA agent with a grudge; and by contrast to them all, Richard Jenkins is marvellously minimalist as the gym manager with a secret crush on Linda.
Also useful is J.K Simmons (J. Jonah James in Spider-Man, BR in Thank You for Smoking, among many credits) as the CIA Superior who is briefed by an underling (David Rasche, excellent) on the improbable, unlikely, incomprehensible and ridiculous scenario that is causing havoc in the ranks. The writing and performance in these two scenes is delicious and provides the key to the film's most serious ambitions: to entertain us every second of its running time.
Email this article
BURN AFTER READING (MA)
CAST: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche
PRODUCER: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Tim Bevan
DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
SCRIPT: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Emmanuel Lubezki
EDITOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (as Roderick Jaynes)
MUSIC: Carter Burwell
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jess Gonchor
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 16, 2008