Burn After Reading (3 stars)

Burn After Reading

(15) 95min


Modern idiocy and bleak humour are the order of the day in the Coen’s latest – a reworking (conscious or otherwise) of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author.

Foul-mouthed CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job after being demoted and decides to write his tell-all memoirs. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with vain treasury agent Harry (George Clooney). Sometime later, across town at Osbourne’s gym, slow-witted employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and cosmetic surgery obsessed Linda (Frances McDormand) happen upon a disc belonging to Osbourne. A shaggy, punctured tyre, blackmail thriller ensues with requisite outbreaks of shock tactic violence and absurdist plotting.

Broad, cartoony and peppered with the type of subversive humour that the brothers have made their own, Burn After Reading attempts to equate the current vogue for paranoid spy thrillers (most noticeably the Bourne films) with the kind of zany character driven comedy/drama at which the siblings excel (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona). The results here are closer to the Coen’s last outing with Clooney – Intolerable Cruelty. Like that film, Burn After Reading feels like its been cobbled together just so a bunch of big name stars can have more fun making it than you will watching it.

Look over these filmmakers’ fantastic body of work and it is clear that they share with Pirandello a need to vividly demonstrate the limitations of film/theatre as a medium of storytelling and as such this film is an exercise in meta-film (an attempt to address larger issues of existence and creativity through the most innocuous of generic forms). All of which is fine if the central meditations on modern stupidity, narcissism, suburban froideur and the pointlessness of espionage exchange were not couched in such terminal dumbness, misanthropy and grotesquery. By anyone else’s standards Burn After Reading is a perfectly serviceable comedy spy thriller. By their standards it’s below par. There are, however, some considerable compensations – Malkovich is terrific and the Coen’s regular composer Carter Burwell’s bombastic percussion-heavy score (massively influenced by Jerry Goldsmith’s score for John Frankenheimer’s 1962 thriller Seven Days in May) is his best work to date.

General release from Fri 17 Oct.

Burn After Reading

  • 3 stars
  • 2008
  • US / UK / France
  • 1h 35min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
  • Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
  • Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, JK Simmons, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche

Foul-mouthed CIA analyst Osbourne (Malkovich) quits his job after being demoted. Across town at Osbourne's gym, slow-witted employees Chad (Pitt) and Linda (McDormand) happen upon one of his discs. A shaggy, punctured tyre blackmail thriller entails with the requisite outbreaks of shock tactic violence and absurdist…