Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Burn After Reading


Review by David Ranscht

If you go into Burn After Reading expecting a typical wry/dark comedy along the lines of, say, The Big Lebowski, then you won’t be disappointed. While certainly not as heavy (and probably not as worthy of awards) as last year’s No Country for Old Men, the Coen Bros.’ latest is wayyyyy more fun.

John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a CIA agent who, instead of accepting a demotion, decides to quit and write his memoirs. From there, all the characters’ interconnectedness gets rolling. Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) wants a divorce, but she hasn’t told him, so her lawyer recommends she copy his financial files because ‘forewarned is forearmed.’ A copy of the disc containing the files (and the memoirs) gets left at a gym, where eager employee Chad (Brad Pitt) and lonely Linda (Frances McDormand) find it and decide to use it to their advantage. See, Linda wants four separate plastic surgeries, but can’t afford them because her insurance won’t cover cosmetic procedures. In addition, she’s trying to find a date, but her Internet search is fruitless until she meets Harry (George Clooney), who is cheating on his wife, coincidentally, with Mrs. Cox. Chad is just interested in the disc because he thinks they’ve discovered some super-secret classified CIA information – even though it’s nothing but financial files and one man’s narrative. What results from all this is a hilarious caper of poorly guessed motives, idiocy and deceit, and it’s a damn good ride.

The way each character’s story is introduced before being seamlessly woven in with the rest is almost masterful. At first, it’s a bit difficult to understand precisely what’s going on, but as the movie progresses, how each person fits into the story gets clearer and clearer – and because you know each character outside of their ties to the lost memoir, it is just that much funnier. Chad thinks he can play hardball with (and even blackmail) a former CIA agent, which is ridiculous in itself. Harry thinks his wife is blissfully unaware of his infidelity until he discovers a private detective tracking him at his wife’s behest because SHE wants a divorce. Two CIA supervisors (J.K. Simmons and David Rasche) act as a Greek chorus of sorts, summarizing everything but finding just as few answers as the people involved. Above all, the humor (and cleverness) of the film comes from the fact that you see the collision of everyone’s intertwining lives coming, but none of them do.

Brad Pitt steals every scene he’s in, but he’s certainly not the only source of laughs, and that gunshot you heard in the trailer? Its unfortunate recipient might surprise you.

But the movie isn’t so much about the end result as the circuitous path to it. The irony of the whole thing is: the entire caper is a result of circumstance and coincidence blown way out of proportion. If one detail had been different, we might see a very different film. You’ll leave the theater contemplating those possibilities, yet still chuckling at what was actually there.

3 ½ / 5 stars

Review by Paul Edwards

This Coen Brothers’ screwball CIA comedy hits all the right notes to light up a somewhat bleak fall season with laughs aplenty from an all-star cast.  This comedy, starring George Clooney, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand, makes fun of mannerisms and  high society with mistakes and misnomers that’ll tickle your funny bone ‘til the cows come home. J.K. Simmons’ short but heavy appearance in the film not only adds a great touch but helps bring the story back to reality.

After No Country for Old Men, the next film for the Best Directing Oscar-winning Coen Brothers is more irreverent and much tighter then their past black comedies Fargo and The Big Lebowski, but it does not have the epic cult feel the other two had, but instead replaces that feeling with safe mainstream smugness. Which is not to say Burn After Reading was a bad movie… far from it.  But it could have been more down-to-earth. However, the same smugness that is noted in the film is also being made fun throughout. It’s like an updated version of The Importance of Being Earnest! But with a CD rather then a last name.

In my opinion, the one actor that really stole the show, as usual, was the immesenly talented and wonderfully entertaining John Malkovich. All in all, he was pretty much the one “straight man” in the whole film (i.e. high on drama, low on jokes) but I feel that without his part the comedy would not have flowed as well, because it needed that balance, as this is definitely a thinking man’s comedy, presented through dialogue and facial expressions.

Another character that I actually really liked was Chad Feldheimer, played by Brad Pitt. It was the first time in a while that I’ve seen Mr. Pitt play someone other than, well, himself. The same could be said of Clooney and his character, but I did not like his character quite as much. Anyway, Chad brings life and joy to an otherwise “clusterf**k” of a situation. It’s his “can-do attitude” that brings this movie to its climax. (one of many, I might add).

The overall atmosphere of the movie seemed, on one hand, to play it straight, as if it really was a thriller (like 88 Minutes) with overly-dramatic music, tense situations and people walking around like they are ready to kick ass. But on the other hand, we had characters like Pitt’s Chad and Simmons’ CIA Superior to remind us that it’s just a movie and a funny one at that. Call it the Confused Country for Dumb Men.

4 / 5 stars

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