Focus Features, 2008
By Julissa Treviño
If nothing else, Burn After Reading is an escape from reality. With its impressive cast and legendary director-duo of the Coen brothers, the film is an absurd comedy that utilizes its ridiculous plot to show off its emphasis on character.
With Joel and Ethan Coen as writers, directors and producers, the film is a character-driven effort to portray, distinctly, five characters who are oblivious to the things that go on around them. And yet, the Coen brothers call this a “spy” film.
The film follows Osbourne (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who quits his?job and decides to write a memoir. As his relationship with his wife,?Katie (Tilda Swinton), dwindles, she copies his “financial” files to a?disc, which include his memoir. Things get a bit blurry when Hardbodies?Gym trainers Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) find the?disk, believe it contains government documents and inadvertently use it?to blackmail Osbourne. Harry (George Clooney) is thrown in, as he?develops affairs with the two women in the film.
Burn isn’t typical; it is over-the-top and silly. But even with the?cast line-up, or perhaps because of it, Burn doesn’t take a clear?direction, creating distractions for an audience that already has to?deal with a messy, confusing plot.
Luckily, most of the comedic efforts are executed perfectly, so the?fact that Burn lacks a structured plot is forgivable. Each character is?so unique and weird in some way that the little obnoxious things they?do seem realistic. Linda’s self-obsessive negative body image finds its?way into our own identities, showing that we are all just a little?insecure. And Katie’s conniving, unsatisfied demeanor also seems to?bring realism to Swinton’s character.
With such extreme and interesting performances, it is obvious that the?Coen brothers wrote the characters specifically for each actor. From?Malkovich’s bad-mouthed Osbourne to Pitt’s unusual and dim-witted Chad,?the actors’ performances are the best aspect of the film. During Chad?and Osbourne’s first chat on the phone, Chad’s naiveté and ignorance?juxtaposes well with Osbourne’s ill-tempered nature, creating a?hilarious dialogue between the two.
However, there are a few moments of complete boredom, where the film?leaves a void and drags on for too long. The film seems to rely purely?on the genius of the people involved, which sometimes makes for scenes?that are too awkward, goofy or simply not engaging. Perhaps the?awkwardness and drawn-out moments serve a greater purpose, or perhaps?the film just has a better-than-deserved reputation.
Though no doubt an absurd contrast to the Coen brother’s films No?Country for Old Men and Miller’s Crossing, Burn is even unlike O?Brother, Where Art Thou? and other Coen comedies. Burn After Reading is?an unlikely comedic stand-out. Ignoring its pre-release hype, the film?is an undeniably funny project that is worthy of a fan base.