Universal // 2008 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // December 20th, 2008
Intelligence is relative.
Burn After Reading is certainly not one of the Coen brothers' best films, but I consider it a refreshing departure from the dark and powerful tone of last year's fantastic No Country For Old Men. This one definitely takes absurdity to a new level, and watching the film's eccentric characters do their thing on the screen is nothing short of a wildly entertaining experience.
The story first introduces us to Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who spontaneously quits his job after being demoted to a different department. Reluctant to jump straight back into the world of employment, Osbourne plans to write a memoir, a decision his cheating wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) cannot help but ridicule. You see, Katie has been thinking about divorcing her husband for quite a while now and takes her lawyer's unscrupulous advice to access Ozzy's financial status, copying all his computer files onto a CD.
Somehow though, and through a series of unfortunate events, the disc ends up in the hands of gym employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand), who quickly identify its content as "secret CIA shit" and decide to blackmail Cox for a load of money. But what seems like a perfect plan at first soon unleashes a horde of terrifying consequences that will drastically change these characters' lives forever.
As I already mentioned, Burn After Reading is extremely absurd, which means you shouldn't take anything you see too seriously. Nor should you go look for something that isn't there. The plot is totally chaotic and stuffed with hilarious twists, and if I had only one sentence to describe the film, I'd say it's an odd screwball comedy focusing on a bunch of idiots who engage mostly in idiotic conversations and make the most ridiculous decisions you can imagine. None of these clowns think at all about what they're doing, but watching them having to deal with the consequences to their silly actions is plain delicious. Some jokes in the movie work great while others don't cause that much laughter, but it's safe to say the comic timing is flawless throughout. The dialogue is hysterically funny.
Although it certainly doesn't look like it at first, there is actually a lot more to these weird characters than you may think. Except for Brad Pitt's character Chad, who's just overly energetic and enthusiastic about everything, every one of these figures is struggling with some form of misery, desperately trying to find a way out of their respective predicaments. For McDormand's Linda Litzke, it's her aging body and the absence of a loving boyfriend that gives her a hard time. So, while trying to come up with the money for some cosmetic surgeries, she also goes on blind dates set up through an online matching service. That's how she meets Harry (George Clooney), a charming guy who's married but spends most of his time doing two things: sleeping around and building something utterly mysterious in his basement (you'll never guess what it is).
Harry also has a sexual relationship with Osbourne's wife Katie, and Katie, as we already established, stops at nothing to get rid of her husband. Then there's also Ted (Richard Jenkins), the manager of the gym Chad and Linda work at. Ted has a strong thing going for Linda, but he's just too shy to reveal his feelings. Most of these miserable characters would do anything to get what they really want, and while some of them may indeed achieve their goals, others are just bound for failure. Finding out what happens to whom in the end is what makes this film so compelling. That said, don't go looking for too deep a message in Burn After Reading. While the depiction of the CIA as a clueless agency that doesn't take intelligence all too seriously earns the movie the description of a spoof on the spy genre, the only lesson I took home from it is the following: if you ever do something incredibly stupid that screws things up big time, make sure to never do it again.
While the main story line is by no means as deep and memorable as those of other Coen films, it's the amazing ensemble cast that makes this flick so enjoyable. Some of you may disagree with me on this one, but I can't think of another ensemble cast in a comedy this year that works as well together as this one. I especially enjoyed watching Brad Pitt in the role of Chad, a complete moron who's constantly dancing around like a fool and clearly gets to deliver the best lines. Also standing out are George Clooney, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand, who each are in total control of their characters.
So far, I've had a great experience with Blu-ray discs released by Universal, and this one delivers the goods as well. The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic transfer looks great and boasts a sharp, clean image quality throughout, despite just a few short shots that still look a bit grainy. The DTS-HD Master Audio is flawless, offering viewers with an adequate sound system the best high-def surround sound experience there is.
The bonus material accompanying the feature film is also presented in high definition, which I always enjoy on a Blu-ray disc. Kicking off the special features is "Finding the Burn," a five-minute behind-the-scenes look during which the Coen bros. sum up the film's story line and members of the cast describe what it's like to work with the two Oscar-winning directors. In "DC Insiders Run Amuck," cast and crew members offer viewers a detailed look at the main characters and what challenges they encountered playing these moronic figures. Finally, "Welcome Back, George" is a two-minute piece during which the Coens and George Clooney chat a bit about his character. While all three of these featurettes are pretty short, they are indeed informative enough and all together enjoyable to watch. Also included is Universal's "My Scenes" feature, which lets you bookmark your favorite clips and share them online via BD Live.
Absurdity rules supreme in Burn After Reading, and that's exactly what makes the film so refreshingly entertaining. If you're willing to go along with all the silliness encompassing these characters, you're in for a fun ride.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Finding the Burn
* DC Insiders Run Amuck
* Welcome Back, George
* Official Site