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Burn After Reading (2008)

Intelligence is relative

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 96 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15


Last year, the Coen brothers won all the awards they could find with the brilliant No Country for Old Men, so what better way to follow it up than a comedy? It is, of course, dark comedy, but it’s comedy nonetheless, and it’s about as far on the other side of the spectrum from No Country as they could get while still maintaining everything that is uniquely Coen: twists, unexpected carnage, and a cast that elevates a really good movie into being a really great movie.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) has been fired from his job in the CIA. This doesn’t sit well with Osbourne’s icy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is also preoccupied with her own adulterous affair with State Department guy Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney). But Osbourne’s not just twiddling his unemployed thumbs, and soon he has put together his memoirs, tales of his CIA adventures. When the disc containing said memoirs is lost at the gym and recovered by two gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pit), all hell breaks loose—and that hell involves the Russian embassy, a thwarted blackmail scheme, and a surprising invention by Harry.

Having seen No Country for Old Men for the first time only a day before viewing Burn After Reading, I was in a Coen state of mind. That movie was a beauty, and this one’s … not. But that’s not an insult—this is just a totally different kind of story, which is what makes the Coens the most original filmmakers getting movies made today. This is their new Big Lebowski—one of those movies that just gets better with repeated viewings. You never know what’s going to happen.

What makes these films so darn good, though, is the casting. Back for his third Coen flick, Clooney handles the paranoid womanizer Harry just right, not sending him over the top but bringing in just enough shocked melodrama face. Pitt is hilarious, Malkovich is … Malkovich, and Swinton is just absolutely detestable. It’s McDormand, though, whose Linda Litzke is funny and sad and real—and the catalyst for just about everything that happens—or doesn’t happen—who steals the show. Looking for love and plastic surgery in all the wrong places, Linda is the movie’s heart—and it does have one—and just like those episodes of The Simpsons where you get to the end and go, “How the heck did we get from a trip to the museum to here,” she’s the tie that binds it all together. In one of the most telling lines from the movie, J.K. Simmons’s CIA high up guy tells his fellow agent, “Report back to me when it makes sense.” At no point in this movie does everyone know what’s going on, but when you look back at it later, it just doesn’t matter, because you’ll watch it again anyway.

It's Got: Everything in the right places, and Harry’s secret invention to boot.

It Needs: To be seen over and over.

DVD Extras Three Featurettes: "Finding the Burn," "DC Insiders Run Amuck," and "Welcome Back George". DVD Extras Rating: 5/10


The Coens have delivered a superb follow up to their masterful No Country for Old Men by not even trying to do something similar.