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Burn After Reading

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen


By Cole Haddon | Posted 9/10/2008

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Burn After Reading, like most Coen Brothers movies, is an ensemble affair chock-full of prominent actors who you probably already like and are predisposed to enjoy. Actors such as George Clooney, who plays Harry Pfarrer, an ex-personal protection specialist who spends his time cruising dating web sites for extramarital affairs, building elaborate sex machines, and suffering from a nonsensical paranoia that he's being followed that's so powerful he must run five miles to get it out of his system. Actors such as Brad Pitt, who plays Chad Feldheimer, a personal trainer as comically funny as Pitt's stoner in True Romance, who finds a disc with what appear to be top-secret U.S. files on it and tries to get rich by selling the information to the Russians. Actors such as John Malkovich, who plays Osborne Cox, an ex-CIA analyst with a drinking problem whose wife left him because he's determined to sit at home and write his memoirs. What do all these characters have in common? Nothing. Why are they in the same movie together? That's the joke of Burn After Reading: There is no point. In fact, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen appear to have set out to make a movie with no point, with characters that absurdly intersect for no reason other than the fact that, as filmmakers, the Coens can divinely ordain it, and, in the end, leave audiences entirely satisfied despite having no idea what the hell they just watched.

The story, no matter how silly it is, revolves around the disc of alleged government files that Chad's too oblivious to realize are actually Osborne's personal memoirs. Osborne is getting a divorce from Katie (Tilda Swinton), who left Osborne for Harry, who is also having sex with Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a gym manager who, in order to pay for her elective body-sculpting surgeries, joins Chad's idiot's quest to blackmail Osborne, and then, when that doesn't work, sell the top-secret files to the Russians. The Coens are especially fascinated by fate at the moment, random chances that you can't predict or prepare for, something they explored heavily in No Country for Old Men, only it had a conventional story line. Here, there is no story line. Even the Coens know it, as they cut to a CIA chief who admits to being befuddled by a story that appears to go nowhere, be about nothing, and from which nothing can be learned. Burn After Reading might be funny, at points as funny as the Coens have ever been, but it's a dark comedy experiment that ultimately leaves you feeling hungry for something more.

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