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Brad Pitt
George Clooney
Frances McDormand
John Malkovich
Tilda Swinton.
Ethan Coen
Joel Coen.
Joel Coen
Ethan Coen.
Running Time
TBC minutes

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Burn After Reading
Concoctions of two dangerous minds

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After CIA putz Ozzie Cox (Malkovich) quits over a drink issue, his shocking memoirs fall into the hands of lovelorn gym instructor Linda Litzke (McDormand) and gung-ho assistant Chad (Pitt). Did we mention overly horny federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney)? We should. He’s relevant.

Burn After Reading
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Ask Ethan Coen to explain his latest fable, and he will scratch his thinning hair and summarise its strange ponderings thus: “It is about the covert world of the CIA and internet dating.” Ask Joel Coen to unravel Burn After Reading, and he’ll stroke his well-trimmed goatee and define its unusual formula thus: “This is our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie - without the explosions.” Indeed, to this previously untapped combo of inert espionage and modern dating rituals, they could add the perils of alcoholism, ’70s conspiracy thrillers, computer malfunction and personal training. Not to forget sexual deviancy. In a career steeped in oddity, this is another polished example of the brothers’ predilection for tossing a pile of wacky ideas and multiple movie references into the juicer to see what flavour emerges.

Following that most un-Coen of eventualities, an Oscar triumph, at first glance you might see their latest as an effort to paddle away from the threatening currents of the mainstream and back into the reassuring calm of the left bank - although, given it was made prior to the release of No Country For Old Men, that would require some nifty clairvoyance on their Brillo-haired behalf. Perhaps they just wanted to reawaken the zany in their filmmaking. Compared to the moody poetry of that classy neo-Western, Burn After Reading has the wild abandon of a punk-rock song - it’s all jibs and jabs, the rope-a-dope moves of a boxer. A slighter, less obviously showy piece that will grow and grow with repeated viewing.

So what’s the rumpus? Ozzie Cox (John Malkovich), a low-level data analyst at the CIA’s voluminous headquarters at Langley, has quit in a fit of pique. He didn’t take too kindly to being demoted. Truth be told, he doesn’t take too kindly to anything. However, a disc of what appears to be his hastily penned revenge memoirs turns up in the ladies’ changing room of Hardbodies Fitness Center. Naturally, personal trainer Linda (Frances McDormand), desperate to fund her forthcoming surgical work, together with her eager-beaver underling Chad (Brad Pitt), decide to sell the intelligence to the Russians. Did we mention overly horny Harry (George Clooney), currently schtupping Ozzie’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) and soon preying upon lonely Linda through the avenue of internet dating? We should. He’s relevant. All of it is played at the amphetamine pace of Raising Arizona.

Cut from similar cloth to Fargo and Lebowski, this is not quite a thriller, and not fully a comedy, but it is very funny and plotted to within an inch of incomprehensible - just like their beloved Chandler. God knows, it errs on the dark side, but the noir is bleached out in the leafy sprawl of Washington DC. Members of the anti-Coen club (unresponsive to the Muncie song, indifferent to bowling) tend to cite the superficial glaze of their art; the tart, unlikable characters; and the smug self-satisfaction at their own cleverness. There will be no swaying even the floaters this time round. If anything, Burn After Reading plays right into the calloused hands of the naysayers. It lacks the immediate charm of classical Coen: there’s no Marge or Dude - good-natured if unconventional counterpoints to the monopoly of jerks, saddos and crazies. Here it’s pretty much just jerks, saddos and crazies.

Ethan, always the more talkative of the brethren, would remind us that most of the characters were written with exactly these actors in mind. Malkovich’s pouting arrogance is a perfect fit for huffy clown Ozzie. McDormand’s disjointed smile and genius for body-language are ideal for nervy, jabbering Linda. Swinton’s snooty grace is primed for Ozzie’s untrustworthy spouse. Out of the crowd, however, it’s the pretty boys who enjoy themselves the most, defiantly mocking their swish Ocean’s Umpteen images. Pitt uncorks his hyperactive loon, blissfully ensconced in the hollow brain-space of a gym-cute bubble-head bounding into the world of espionage like a puppy. Clooney has a wonderful line in smarm he reserves for just these Coen-arranged occasions. Harry is a true-blue sleazebag - wait ’til you see what he’s got in his basement - who emerges out of the chaos as near enough the leading man.

This is precision-built madness. Beneath these chattering lunatics and the pinballing plot lies an intricacy worthy of Kubrick. The sound-editing alone is exquisite: the squeak of a wardrobe door triggering a blast of violence; the hallways of Langley reverberating to the clip-clop of fraught footsteps, rhythmically muffled by carpeting in sonic tribute to The Shining’s zooming trike. Regular cinematographer Roger Deakins may have been on his holidays, but replacement Emmanuel Lubezki (a real person) proves adept at tight, shapely frames and creepy angles.

True Coen fanciers can take solace in such familiar comforts as astonishingly bad highlights in Pitt’s sticky-up hair, the smart-aleck language (although it’s got nothing on the charged patter of Fargo or Lebowski) and a leading character wielding an axe in his dressing gown. And, as is the Coens’ curious wont, the film never quite fits its assumed reality: while we’re darting about contemporary Washington, concerned with such recent preoccupations as social networking and gym regimes, it has the lean, grumbly look of ’70s cinema and the dotty bedlam of trouser-plunging British farce, as if Seven Days In May had been rewritten by Alan Ayckbourn. It is also one of those movies that won’t leave you alone. Percolating away in your brain, its off-centre wit will take shape. The day after, even a week later, one of its peculiar set-pieces will spring to mind.

Ethan might remonstrate, but there runs a theory in certain circles that all Coen films are ultimately about American foreign policy. While it takes work to figure out exactly how that fits The Ladykillers, it is written through Burn After Reading like a stick of rock. Curiously, it’s the schmoes rather than the bureaucrats in the firing line. The CIA suits (led by a too-brief appearance from J. K. Simmons) are benign, bemused and rather gormless; it’s the knuckleheaded plebs who are out of control. America’s troubles, it titters, are of their own making.

As Linda tries to offload the improbable secrets to the very confused Russians, the Agency is baffled. Why the Russians?

The idiots simply can’t think of anywhere else. Farce by its nature is a matter of escalation: each stage of the ever-increasing anarchy is entirely logical, but the net result is insanity. What is Iraq, if not a great, big, terrible farce? Then again, it could just be a big joke on celebrity. There’s nothing that tickles those pesky brothers more than casting a gaggle of gigantic Hollywood stars - including one’s wife - as total nitwits. It’s a high old tale about unintelligent intelligence. That’s the Coens for you.

If No Country For Old Men was vintage port, Burn After Reading is a shot of tequila: eye watering and hard to swallow, but the after-effect is terrific.

Reviewed by Ian Nathan

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for Burn After Reading
Empire Star Rating

"Appearances can be... deceptive."

When the Coen's go for all-out comedy, the results are typically hilarious, and Burn After Reading is no exception. From George Clooney's paranoid sex-addict to Brad Pitt's dimwitted workout fanatic, this is hysterical, shameless comedy all the way through... or is it? ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by movienut707 at 01:29, 20 December 2012 | Report This Post

Burn After Reading Review

With Burn After Reading, The Coen Brothers have crafted another clever comedy/thriller with an outlandish plot and memorable characters. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by the film man at 23:01, 26 February 2012 | Report This Post

Burn After Reading Review

With Burn After Reading, The Coen Brothers have crafted another clever comedy/thriller with an outlandish plot and memorable characters. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by the film man at 23:01, 26 February 2012 | Report This Post

wonderful madness!

ok, so the coans have run this race before but my my are they brilliant at it... This is a very very funny film. One of the funniest in so many years. Completely zany, mad & a million miles a minute. If you just go with it, you will certainly be rewarded, I haven't laughted out loud watching a film so much since the farrelly's went mia...! I just adore how crap they all are at their jobs, particularly the spooks, who are like the anti-bourne brigade. Also take note of doctor Swindon's great ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by SHANEIZOID at 04:42, 19 August 2011 | Report This Post

Awesome, funny film :-D ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Bubba76 at 00:40, 28 March 2011 | Report This Post

A well constructed film

It is indeed a well constructed film with a n intricate plot. That said it is a film filled with dislikable character, those whom are slightly sympathetic usually are the ones who suffer the most. The plot is typically convoluted as usual for these writers/directors. I have to admit I am uncertain of if I like it or not. It is not a spectacular film and didn't draw me in, as a comedy, even a black one, it didn't really work and at the end of the film I wasn't glad that I had watched it just ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by sanchia at 18:59, 09 May 2010 | Report This Post

Very good comedy - if you can appreciate it

Many traditional people will not enjoy this film as its humour is very modern and rather dark. Most movie-goers think Chevy Chase and Steve Martin when the word comedy comes to mind, which is why this film won't quite deliver when it comes to laughs to certain audiences. The cast is perfect and totally at home with the screenplay. Don't be fooled by the four star rating. If you like your films traditional and find modern comedy (such as Catch-22) offputting, then steer clear. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by djphilips at 12:54, 07 April 2010 | Report This Post

Exceptional Tragi-comedy

It's about stupid self-serving people with too much power, in a world of lies It's about a case of a coming and going of nothing really heppening at all Some see the humour and genuis in this and others don't like that kind of thing And as for attacks from people who say the tonal shifts are too big, the violence ruins the jokes. Well in life it doesn't stay on one tone, so films shouldn't have to stay on that as well I'll adore it bad there's not enough love for it ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by monkeyhumour at 07:23, 22 March 2010 | Report This Post

Decent but one of the Coens' worst

One of those films that make you smile, but never laugh. It's clever, engaging and the actors were perfectly cast but lacks the quirky spark of the Coen's best efforts. Watchable, but quite disappointing considering their otherwsie brilliance. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Kieran94 at 12:08, 03 January 2010 | Report This Post

What's the point?

When I sat down to watch this film, I thought that it would be an easy watch with some laughs, but instead I found myself trying to laugh but there was nothing to laugh at. Sure Brad Pitt's character sometimes makes you laugh to yourself, but thats all there is. It's one of those really stupid films that tricks you into thinking that there is something clever behind it, but when you look at it for what it is, it's just a bunch of boring characters doing stupid things, with the most predictable t... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by gritslipper at 11:45, 03 September 2009 | Report This Post

Ignored Gem

Its no No Country, but its brilliant. Completely surreal, treating light subjects darkly and vice versa, but I loved it. Brad Pit was awesome, and it completely changed my opinion of him as an actor. The cast is strong, and the script is too. It didn't get the recognition it deserved, in my opinion. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by MovieAddict247 at 15:42, 06 June 2009 | Report This Post

RE: Burn After Reading

An incredible dissapointment imo. I love the Coen Bros, especially when they go into the wacky character genre so I went into this expecting a great laugh. Not one big laugh I can think of, although there were some decent bits, these were all found in the trailer. In no way do I mean this is an awful film or even a bad one, just a bland wasted opportunity     SPOILERS>>>>>     The Good: Frances McDormand is always entertaining even though she coast... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by st3veebee at 14:58, 11 March 2009 | Report This Post

RE: Burn After Reading

Considering the Coens made 'No Country..' and then this is a true indication of just how talented they are. Perfect casting, especially in Tilda Swinton and Pitt. The well-written script is full of dark humor and some shocking laugh-out-loud moments as well as some more violent surprises. The multi-layered script is slightly confusing at times but it all comes together brilliant in the 3rd act. Also, the CIA are hilarious. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by MathewRed at 17:46, 18 February 2009 | Report This Post

Pitt is only good thing

Not funny at all, laughed once i think, coen brothers are going downhill ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by 672matt at 12:01, 17 February 2009 | Report This Post

Disappointing, Only Pitt Is Funny.

Me and my sister wanted to see this as the trailer showed promise to be funny and slightly odd with Brad Pitt once again being a twat and totally over the top. We watched last night only to be disappointed and frustated by the stupid plot. There is something there going on, a disk of John Malkovich's work goes missing and ends up on Pitt and Frances Mcdormand's laps, they take it to the Russian Embracy to get money out of it while George Clooney has a affair with not only on Tilda Swinton but on... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by joanna likes films at 14:25, 16 February 2009 | Report This Post

RE: Burn After Reading

I found it really disappointing. Just not as funny as it needed to be, with the performances being amusing at best before becoming incredibly tiresome, with Brad Pitt being the only real standout. The idea at its center is quite nice and amusing, but it's lost amid all those pointless and unfunny sub plots. Give me the Coens darker, more serious stuff over their screwball comedies any day. 2/5 ... More

Posted by Dark Avenger at 00:03, 13 February 2009 | Report This Post

RE: Pretty good

I thought it was absolutely hilarious in places but seriously what the hell was happening? I've never been so lost & confused during a movie in my entire life. ... More

Posted by Jackie Boy at 22:13, 12 February 2009 | Report This Post

RE: Pretty good

A passable effort from the Coens, slickly put together, but lacking the wit and heart of their other comedy-thrillers. It's never less than entertaining, with Brad Pitt and JK Simmons providing the most amusing moments, but in the end it all feels a bit lightweight (6/10) ... More

Posted by MOTH at 09:15, 11 February 2009 | Report This Post

Pretty good

Not sure this was quite as good as I thought it would be. Yeah Brad Pitt's performance is quite funny, but him, Frances McDormand and George Clooney seemed to be a little over the top. Maybe that's the point, but sometimes subtle is funnier. Thought John Malkovich was brilliant again, loved the three-way phone conversation, and I loved the end summation from the CIA big cheese... ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by SonnyDaze at 12:03, 04 February 2009 | Report This Post

Funnier than no country for old men

this film had a killer cast and was incredibly funny sure the story was all over the place but that was the whole point and it was great wacky fun and the best comedy of 2008. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by THE DALTONATOR at 08:00, 25 January 2009 | Report This Post

RE: Burn After Reading

I saw this film recently and can't help but feel that it's another case of the film-makers name being more important that the film itself. The Coen Brothers have made some excellent films in the past (Big Lebowski, No Country) but this really wasn't up to the quality of these. If this had been made by any other director it would have been rated at 2/5 at best. I honestly feel the only reason it got 4/5 by Empire was because of the Coen name. It wasn't kooky, funny or anything even remotely appr... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by hammerfan at 00:12, 12 January 2009 | Report This Post

Fantastic! From the start, the Coen brothers have the audience in the palm of their hands. It doesn't attempt to be The Big Lebowski, but has it's own identity so you really can't compare the two films. If you want to get wrapped up in a great plot then go see this. It's even hilarious ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by reejctell at 21:44, 27 November 2008 | Report This Post

RE: Wee touches

Enjoyed it very much, liked the way it was filmed too. May have not been as good without Brad Pitt though. ... More

Posted by Mikaboshi at 17:07, 23 November 2008 | Report This Post

Wee touches

To echo most of the above criticisms - it seemed a solid, funny movie, without ever really taking off.  There's subtext there (incompetent intelligence agencies unwittingly helping the self-interested and destructive parties) but not really of any insight.  The wee touches, such as John Malkovich's pronunciation of d the real highlights.    Three stars after watching it at the cinema, but would proably have snuck a four if I's caught it late on TV one night... ... More

Posted by M at 14:12, 23 November 2008 | Report This Post


Finally got round to seeing this a few days ago and really didn't like it at all. Didn't find it at all funny.   5/10 ... More

Posted by PerfectlyFlawed at 13:50, 23 November 2008 | Report This Post

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