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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Burn After Reading (review)

Stupid Power

I think maybe I’ve figured out how Joel and Ethan Coen do it. How they move so effortlessly from comedy to drama, from fluffy to forceful, from silly to solemn. It’s that they don’t think about tone or genre, at least not at the beginning: they just think about a character, and let him have his lead, and see where he takes them. A brilliant but heartless killer like Anton Chigurh is going to naturally take them in one direction, and so we get No Country for Old Men. And a bubbleheaded knuckleknob like Chad Feldheimer is going to naturally take them in another direction, and so we get Burn After Reading, which is as gloriously zany as Country was brutally vicious.
It seems perfectly plain, when looked at it from this perspective, that there’s no mystery about the Coens’ genius for crossing genres. Not that I’m suggesting that genius is now going to be easily reproducible, because — ha! — nobody is like the Coens (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Blood Simple). But for some reason it’s suddenly clear to me that the Coens aren’t about genre: they’re about people. Chad is one of those grand force-of-nature characters, like Chigurh, who cannot help but be at the center of something extraordinary — it just so happens that where he goes when he takes the reins is into a magnificent load of nonsense, a glorious madness that leaves you pondering the human capacity for being an enormous lunkhead, rather than into a gloomy bloodbath that makes you question the worth of humanity. But, you know, same difference, really.

The Coens do comedy with the same level of intensity as they do drama, and in Burn that comes through in the mock-thriller atmosphere they create, the hilariously melodramatic score and the long shots as if through binoculars or a surveilling camera lens — it’s all dark sedans parked down the street and paranoia that pricks at your soul and cunning intrigue. Well, not so cunning, perhaps, for this is all being done by, or done to, a cadre of some of the dumbest, sweetest people you will ever meet on film. Yeah, it’s about Chad the dimbulb fitness instructor who finds a disc containg the memoirs of a CIA agent that he thinks he can turn this to his financial favor. But the plot that spins from that — and, indeed, the plot that spins before that, that gets the story to that point — is so wickedly convoluted that I don’t know how I would even begin to attempt explaining it, which I wouldn’t do anyway because the brainy buzz you get from Burn comes in seeing how the Coens move us through their perfectly constructed maze of a plot to get to that delicious hunk of cheese at the center of it.

The point is: Chad is only the beginning. Oh my goodness yes, Brad Pitt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), as Chad, is marvelously goofy, and steals the movie from a whole cast of movie-stealers. But all of these characters are, though it sounds contradictory, as genuinely human as they are wonderfully cartoonish: Harry Pfarrer the U.S. marshal (George Clooney: Michael Clayton, Ocean’s Thirteen), who’s going to be labeled a womanizer but really just seems to look on sex as another physical exercise he’s addicted to; Chad’s coworker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Something’s Gotta Give), whose middle-aged loneliness has pushed her to the desperation of Internet dating; their boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins: Step Brothers, The Kingdom), who yearns for Linda from afar; Osborne Cox (John Malkovich: Beowulf, Eragon), the CIA operative writing his memoirs out of boredom after he’s been pushed out of the agency; and Cox’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton: Prince Caspian, Michael Clayton), who… well, she might be nothing more than a cartoon sketch of a bitch on wheels, but she’s a sublimely riotous one. (David Rasche [Flags of Our Fathers, United 93] and J.K. Simmons [Rendition, Juno] as CIA officers and Cox’s superiors have smaller roles, but don’t let that stop them from making the absurd most of them.)

There’s a screenwriting maxim that one should always craft a story that’s about the most important thing that has ever happened or will ever happen to your characters, and maybe it’s just that I always fall so madly in love with the Coens — again — with their every film that it seems to me now that only their films appear to bear that maxim in mind. Linda, for one: pretty much the only thing she wants out of life is to get some plastic surgery to “repair” the perceived flaws of her body, which must, of course, be the only things keeping her love life on the backburner. And the Coens and McDormand play that with all the urgency and fervor of an Austen heroine, making it funny and sad at the same time. When you discover what Harry is building in his basement… well, you’ll see that this is a man desperate to share his passions: he’s not selfish, and he’s far from thoughtless. He’s just clueless, but pleasantly so.

I’m tempted to call this the first national-security comedy — I know there was that 2003 movie called National Security, but it starred Martin Lawrence and hence could not possibly have been funny — but this isn’t really about national security, and the disc with the CIA secrets is just a MacGuffin. Burn After Reading is about people… very very stupid people doing very very stupid things, as performed by very very smart people being very very clever about it. In fact, it’s probably the smartest movie ever about stupidity.


MPAA: rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • Anne-Kari

    Man oh man, do I want to actually make it to the theater for this one.

  • helas

    Cannot wait for this…hope it’s among the Brothers’ best. Just rewatched ‘O Brother’, and while it has plenty of great moments, I’d say ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is better. And of course Lebowski is a classic.

  • Great review, and I like the addition of the movie pic next to the site name up top.

    I’m guessing you’d love to be in Frances McDormand’s shoes in that shot, because eating popcorn and laughing in a movie theater next to George Clooney would constitue ultimate bliss. Am I right?

  • MaryAnn

    I like the addition of the movie pic next to the site name up top.

    Me too. That picture will change on a regular basis, but that image was too good to pass up to inaugurate that little feature.

    I’m guessing you’d love to be in Frances McDormand’s shoes in that shot, because eating popcorn and laughing in a movie theater next to George Clooney would constitue ultimate bliss. Am I right?

    If it were Clooney himself, sure. His character in this movie? Not so much.

  • Scott P

    Love the review– very witty & clever.

    After seeing the hilarious trailer & now it is ranked in Mary Ann’s top 5, I plan on seeing “Burn” when it opens on Friday.

  • Spencer

    I was reluctant to see this movie because it was getting lukewarm reviews, and I don’t want to have to sit through The Ladykillers again.

    But we agree on pretty much only two things: geek stuff and the Cohen brothers. So thank you– I will see this movie ASAP.

    Or, maybe those two are the same thing…

    Final note to Brad Pitt: stick to small dramas. If you must do something commercial, go for comedy– like this. NEVER EVER do epic again.

  • MaryAnn

    I was reluctant to see this movie because it was getting lukewarm reviews, and I don’t want to have to sit through The Ladykillers again.

    No, neither do I. This ain’t another *Ladykillers,* I promise.

  • ThatTickles

    Just got back from the theater. It’s not as bad as The Ladykillers, but it will ultimately be sold in one of those two-DVD packs with Intolerable Cruelty.

  • HeJü

    Nonono, Ladykillers this is not, MaryAnn’s review is spot on. I look back on Ladykillers like that time when the Criterion Collection released The Rock – just one huge pile of crap to make all the jewels shine brighter.
    One of the funniest things about Burn After Reading were the people after the screening who didn’t love it, who were trying to find flaws and plot holes, and came up empty.

  • Blank Frank

    I dunno. I laughed in spots and I never felt dissatisfied with the movie. But I didn’t feel satisfied with it, either.

    If I had rented it, it would’ve been alright, but paying almost $10 to watch it in the theater, it didn’t feel like it was worth the total price of admission. But I can’t put my finger on why.

  • ThatTickles

    I’m with you, Blank. Thin characters that I never liked or thought I understood the motivations of is the nearest I can come to explaining it.

  • David

    Love this movie.

    Hate the mish-mash of movies and politics. Your site is darn near headache-inducing and it will be difficult to return for your insightful reviews.

  • amanohyo

    You’re entitled to criticize, but it’s an odd complaint. This site is around 95% movies/television/geek humor, and 5% politics. Why not just read the reviews and skip the rest?

    Actually, this is one of the calmest, most rational spots on the web. I understand how you’d be sick to death of politics, but we are just a couple months away from a kinda important election, and one of the best things about the site is that MA is upfront about her personal biases, political or otherwise.

    If the unorganized, politically corrupted chaos of this site almost gives you a headache, you must be scraping bits of your brain off the pavement every time you step outside the front door.

  • David

    Sounds like you live in a carnival funhouse.

    Not surprising, since you write like a clown.

    Nonetheless, visually speaking, for folks who aren’t in the circus, the site redesign is appalling.

  • amanohyo

    My writing is a bit clownish and painful to read. Sorry, I don’t get out much (the carny code is very strict). But I’m confused again, is it the trafficlight theme that bugs you or the political content? Or both? And why post the complaints here, beneath a review that doesn’t mention politics at all?

    But, getting back on topic, I am actually curious about this movie. Is the tone as goofy and lighthearted as O Brother?

  • David

    Both. And I think they go hand in hand, frankly.

    Why post it here?

    Because I wanted both to applaud the review and take a moment to note that, as a fan, the current site is visually painful and dilutes what Maryann does well with more the team-sport politicizing that has poisoned politics — and is starting to poison everything else.

    I found Burn After Reading tonally closer to Fargo. It is an operatic farce with a smattering of serious violence — including an ax to the head. It’s a rather trenchant, and accurate, depiction of the human condition, and so is hilarious in a great cosmic joke kind of way. We are a pathetic species, really.

  • MaryAnn

    Hate the mish-mash of movies and politics. Your site is darn near headache-inducing and it will be difficult to return for your insightful reviews.

    You’ve got lots of other options, David, if you want to read reviews from people who either have no opinions about anything outside of movies, or pretend that they don’t.

    the current site is visually painful and dilutes what Maryann does well

    Again, plenty of other places to go, David.

    with more the team-sport politicizing

    If you think my political opinions are anything akin to cheering on a sports team, then you really do need to go somewhere else, because you’re clearly not understanding what I’m writing.

  • David

    Whoah.

    I like your reviews. I think they’re generally smart and insightful, and you’re a good writer. That’s why you are one of the only reviewers I read (and only after seeing the movie myself). That’s why I’ve visited the site.

    I think the new site design is visually awful. That’s my opinion, of course, but it’s downright painful with bad fonts and clashing colors. It looks like K-Mart meets the National Enquirer meets a box of gummy bears. Again, just my opinion. Others disagree, but as a long-time reader, I thought it okay to share my pain.

    And as for your politicizing, I understand well what you’re writing. You are, of course, free to post what you like under whatever veil you wish, just as I am free to read or not read what you write. Obviously. I just thought you might give a damn about what one of your readers thinks, rather than accuse them of ignorance.

  • MaryAnn

    I did not accuse you of ignorance, David, and of course I want to hear what my readers think, no matter what they think. But when it sounds like a reader is saying that the site is no longer enjoyable, I do have to wonder why said reader continues to come around.

    You are free to change fonts if you wish. I’m using only standard Web fonts, but if you don’t like them, tell your browser to ignore them.

  • David

    Telling someone they don’t understand you either admits that your writing isn’t readily capable of being understood or that they’re ignorant. I’m quite certain you didn’t mean the former.

    The problem is that there are clashing fonts in a host of sizes dressed upon garish colors and laid out with what appears to be an electronic trowel. The banner of the site is a haphazard melange that looks like the badly laid out section of a small town advertising flyer — or, perhaps more accurately, the ad section of a badly laid out yearbook. Pale lime green with bright green light blue and a bile-colored beige, capped with black and red? It really is like Christmas on bad acid. And the stop light motif everywhere? All crammed together? It’s a mess.

  • MaryAnn

    Maybe you should send me a screengrab of what you’re seeing, David, because what you’re describing doesn’t sound like what I intended, or what I see.

    Also: suggesting that you’re not understanding what I’m writing is NOT calling you ignorant. It’s a completely different thing. Maybe you’re REALLY not getting me at all.

  • chris

    I would say that the Coen Brothers’ films are beginning to resemble the same fate as Tarantino. Their name is basically a brand which supercedes the actual quality of the product. Somehow the mere inclusion of their name in the title credits somehow grants a movie a higher status amongst critics.

    They can waste nearly two-hours of our time with highly superficial characters (namely Clooney playing Danny Ocean with a beard and Pitt performing a SNL character with no depth) because they are the Coen Brothers. Who cares if the movie acheives nothing, its intelligent and somehow we must appreciate pretentiousness.

    Speaking of intelligence, or lack thereof, I wanted to respond to one final point you make in your review: “Burn After Reading is about people… very very stupid people doing very very stupid things, as performed by very very smart people being very very clever about it. In fact, it’s probably the smartest movie ever about stupidity.”

    This movie lost itself in trying to construct what you call ‘stupid people’. All of the characters seemed forced, except for Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins.

    One final note. You pass moral judgement on the House Bunny for is feminist degradation yet turn a blind eye on the use of senseless death as a comedic ploy. I fully support your argument with regards to the House Bunny but wonder why no one has made the same comment about Burn. Of course, by your standards, the latter was made by ‘smart’ and ‘clever’ people and, therefore, warrants its approval.

  • MaryAnn

    Somehow the mere inclusion of their name in the title credits somehow grants a movie a higher status amongst critics.

    Please support this contention somehow.

    You pass moral judgement on the House Bunny for is feminist degradation yet turn a blind eye on the use of senseless death as a comedic ploy.

    I utterly fail to see how the first clause of that sentence connects to the second.

  • Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he’s not taking himself too seriously… in any case, it’s about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements

  • Maurice

    I watched this again tonight and I have to say that the subtle, but powerful way the Coens use the camera to tell the story is nothing short of brilliant, and that the film, which marches to its own mad rhythm is completely unconscious of its audience, which gave me a delightful, wicked, voyeuristic feeling.

    It’s almost like examining our most basic and visceral motivations under a microscope.

    Oh, and the performances are outstanding. This one is nothing short of brilliant.

  • chris

    Thanks for your response. I have little to back up my post. It was merely a personal opinion/reflection. I generally enjoy your reviews. This time, however, I wanted to share some thoughts.

    Lastly, I apologize for the poor grammar and sentence structure. The comparison between your review of House Bunny and Burn was meant to examine your moral assessment of those two films. I wanted to put your condemnation of House Bunny up against Burn to point out contradictions.

    I was uncomfortable with the deaths in this film, particularly the context in which they were set (comedy). I am not pro law and order, or a right wing conservative (Or at least I think I am. Perhaps this opinion says otherwise). We condemn movies one issue (female degradation) but elide another (callous murder). Both were comedies, aimed at eliciting a laugh.

    I was just trying to consider the deaths in this film, to see what you or others thought. An explanation which does not rely upon saying ‘this is what the Coen brother’s do’ or ‘it was done more intelligently than House Bunny’ would be appreciated. The first argument supports my point on the branding of the Coens, where their name supercedes content of film. The second point just smacks of pretentiousness and insults those who actually enjoyed House Bunny for its simplicity and slapstick humor, making them feel as though they are stupid or idiotic.

  • karen r

    Wow, the opinions on this film are *all* over the place. I just saw it and, omigod, I laughed my a** off. And, just like Victoria Beckham, it takes a very special kind of humor to make me laugh.

    I saw this in a theatre just a mile or outside Washington DC that is known to host pretty discriminating audiences, and there were a lot of other people laughing, too. Yeah, being a DC-er can make it more funny when everything takes place on streets/bridges you navigate nearly every day. But the setting really became secondary to the glorious farce that was unfolding.

    This film is a Washington monument to absurdity. To how absurd things can get. A big towering wedding cake of absurd. Absolutely laugh out loud. You never expect the next turn in plot. It was just effin’ brilliant.

    And the expository wrap-it-all-up scene at the end with Simmons and Rasche is entirely reflective of the way things really are. At least the way things have been for the last 8 years.

    Oh, and you *must* stay to listen to the song over the closing credits. You’ll keep laughing.

    I for one am really glad I saw this. And I’m going to see it again. With everything else going on in this fracked up world, it puts absurdity in perspective.

    Sorry, gotta go. I gotta date waitin’ for me on the Mall!

  • MaryAnn

    I wanted to put your condemnation of House Bunny up against Burn to point out contradictions.

    But there’s nothing contradictory about it. It’s apples and oranges. It’s like saying that because I complained about one actor’s performance in Movie A, I therefore MUST complain about the score in Movie B. But that makes no sense: there’s no connection.

    We condemn movies one issue (female degradation) but elide another (callous murder). Both were comedies, aimed at eliciting a laugh.

    But they’re very different kinds of movies, which use their themes and plots in very different kinds of ways. For one, *House Bunny* purports to, under its humor, say something it believes is meaningful about women. *Burn After Reading* makes no pretense to being anything other than the cartoon it is.

    An explanation which does not rely upon saying ‘this is what the Coen brother’s do’ or ‘it was done more intelligently than House Bunny’ would be appreciated.

    But that second explanation, which you dismiss so out of hand, is very much part of the reason. Why is “this is done in a smart way” so unacceptable to you?

    The first argument supports my point on the branding of the Coens, where their name supercedes content of film.

    But as I’ve said many times before, there’s almost nothing that is inappropriate subject matter for a movie. It’s how that subject matter is handled that makes it work, or not. I don’t care what other critics have said: I have never raved about a movie simply because the Coen Brothers made it. In fact, I’ve panned in print one of their films (*The Ladykillers*). That said, yes, there is a certain ethos that the Coens work with that, more often than not, elevates whatever their subject matter is. That is NOT a matter of their name superceding their subject matter: it’s a matter of them being brilliant. That doesn’t mean everything they do is perfect. It just means there’s a greater chance that what they do will be more interesting than not.

    The second point just smacks of pretentiousness and insults those who actually enjoyed House Bunny for its simplicity and slapstick humor, making them feel as though they are stupid or idiotic.

    Well, smack me as pretentious then. If you like the “simplicity” of *House Bunny,* fine. But please don’t complain when others enjoy movies that are rather less simplistic.

  • Sara

    Well, didn’t know if I wanted to see this movie or not…but after reading the review…and living through the present election and the stakes involved thus far, I think I’ll go ASAP.

  • Is it my imagination or does Diane English look a lot like the Francis McDormand character in this movie?

    Quote:
    Burn After Reading is about people… very very stupid people doing very very stupid things, as performed by very very smart people being very very clever about it.
    –MaryAnn Johanson

    You wish. ;-)

    This was obviously not one of the Coen Brothers’s better films.

    But I’m glad you managed to get something out of it, MaryAnn.

  • SPOILER ALERT/
    Finally saw this movie and I liked it but I wish the ending was happier. (Yeah, I know, so pedestrian.) And I realized that no one really grew in this film. You know that character arc thing.

    I was looking for that in Linda. I really wanted her and her love-lorn boss to get together at the end. And to have even the possibility of that happening taken away from her was disappointing.

    So I guess my complaint is that it was too close to real life. (heh.)
    /END SPOILER

  • Alec

    Just saw Burn.

    Your review was spot on, thanks for getting me along to it.

    An utterly brilliant multilayered black comedy, I feel its prime message, if indeed it had one, was to satirise the (at times subtle) depravity and psychosis lurking just beneath the middle class social veneer.

    I don’t know, I felt just like I was watching Faulty Towers again; seeing a tiny bit of my past mistakes in each of the horrible characters made me squirm in my seat. SPOILER: And most deliciously, just like Sybil, only Tilda’s bitchqueen actually comes out on top in the end.

    By the way, sorry MJ – I agree with the naysayers about the site redesign. It is impossibly convoluted and irritating, and I say this spending most of my recent working life on the net. It’s just…painful to navigate. I end up wandering around the content for several minutes before finding what I’m after (not always a bad thing I spose).

    But as long as you ensure I don’t miss gems like Burn though, I guess I’ll put up with it!

  • MaryAnn

    The site navigation has not changed. Only the look changed.

  • Paul

    I just saw Burn after Reading and I thought it was the blackest comedy I’ve ever seen. I disagree with our hostess because I thought Linda was the driving force rather than Chad, but do share her high opinion of the movie.

    I watched it with a Japanese friend of mine and she was stunned at the amount of adultry. When she asked me if American marriages were like that, I said the statistics vary from 30 to 70% (of marriages that include adultry) because it’s so hard to measure. That’s what stuck out to her, rather than the very brief violence.

    What stuck out the most to me was the utter unimportance of what the main characters were doing in the view of the CIA managers. JK’s character seemed befuddled as to why he was even being told about this little tradegy. I wonder how that relates to the opening and ending shots of coming down to Earth and going back into space. There is something very philosophically bleak about it that tunes into how I feel sometimes about my own life, about how it doesn’t really matter what I do with my life in the long run. I just can’t decide if that is freeing or depressing.

    And for the record, I enjoy the political digressions. I used to go to a neocon site to get into arguments, and coming here afterwards is the intellectual equivilent of taking a shower after doing the dirty work (for me, anyway). They kicked me off for excessive sarcasam, but I give them credit for putting up with a left of Obama liberal like me for two years.

  • paul

    The first time I saw “Burn After Reading,” I thought it was very funny. The second time I saw it, I thought it was horrorifyingly sad, except for the CIA meetings. They were still pretty funny. I guess the first time I was laughing out of the surprise of how logically weird it was, but the second time I saw it I saw the pain the characters were going through.

  • Bah!!!;-)

  • David C

    I just caught up with this movie on DVD, and LOVE it. I think it’s the first “Washington Spy Thriller” ever made about the REAL Washington, and as a denizen of the real Washington, I find that hilarious and delightful. Like Karen R. said, this is the way things really work (and for more like the last 50 years.)

    MaryAnn, I noticed in the added DVD features, the Coens pretty much confirm your theory about how they put the movie together. They said they basically started by thinking of a bunch of actors they wanted to work with, then what kinds of characters they might play, then how those characters might interact.

  • David C

    Oh, and one thing that’s a slightly subtle point is that the CD with the “CIA secrets” on it, is in fact [i]utterly[/i] worthless. He’s a mid-level analyst with no significant clearance, and he wouldn’t be able to disclose them in a memoir anyway. (Plus, the character actually seems like a guy who knows and follows the rules about not disseminating classified information.)

    I was a bit surprised by the absence of plentiful security badges and lanyards, as knowledgeable about the Real Washington as this movie is.

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