Burn After Reading: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Satire, Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton

Excess for excess sake? Star vehicle that’s playful but anti-glamorous? Goofy comedy about political paranoia that defies genre and audience expectations? Self-reflexive satire of stars screen images “Burn After Reading,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” arguably the best film of their careers, is all of the above–accomplished in a speedy 94 minutes.

By now, the pattern in the Coens’ careers is clear: a serious drama, often noir, is followed by a broad or breezy comedy, and vice versa. “Blood Simple,” their astonishing 1985 debut, was followed by the 1987 comedy “Raising Arizona,” and “The Big Lebowski,” their cult comedy of 1998, came right after darkly humorous noir thriller “Fargo,” in 1996.

The above comedies are relevant as points of reference, for “Burn After Reading,” their hybrid of snarky comedy-violent thriller, is in the same vein but also different. Setting out to deconstruct all the “funny” genres that have defined American cinema–romantic comedy, social satire, spoof, and parody–the Coens, who are now both credited as producers, writers and directors of their pictures, have deliberately and consciously made a comedy that is at once nave and sophomoric, cynical and knowing, containing crass and shrewd dialogue in equal measure.

And while there are continuities, such as the casting of regulars Frances McDormand (also Joel’s wife), George Clooney, and Richard Jenkins, there are also changes, such as working for the first time with Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, and John Malkovich, who steals a number of scenes he is in. Similarly, among the crew, you will find composer Carter Burwell, who here goes overboard, probably with the Coens’ blessing, and a new cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki (“Children of Men”), after years of collaborating with the brilliant lenser Roger Deakins.

While only about half of the movie is really funny and hitting its targets-gym culture, obsession with beauty, plastic surgery, Internet dating, political paranoia–overall, “Burn After Reading” is a minor piece of work, not as silly as the 2003 remake “The Lady Killers,” which never found its right tone and suffered from the miscasting of Tom Hanks in the lead, but also not as hilariously funny as “Raising Arizona,” or as clever and replete with inside jokes as “The Big Lebowski.”

It’s good to see Clooney and Pitt reteaming after their joint appearances in all three features of Soderbergh’s “Ocean” franchise. And it’s probably a happy accident that Clooney and Swinton, last seen to an advantage in the Oscar-nominated “Michael Clayton,” are here cast as adulterous lovers, rather than competitors.

“Burn After Reading” received its world premiere as opening night of the 2008 Venice Film Festival and will play at the Toronto Film Festival next week prior to wide stateside release on September 12. (The film will also be shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival in the Pearls sidebar). The film’s talent is so hot right now that Focus Features should benefit from a strong commercial bow and perhaps a lengthy run, though the comedy, like previous Coens’ forays into this genre, will divide film critics.

The Coens project such a youngish (even boyish) look and outlook that it’s hard to believe they are in their 50s. So are their stars, with Jenkins, Malkovich, and McDormand the eldest in the crowd, and the rest barely a decade younger. Age may or may not be relevant in positioning the film in the cruel marketplace, but “Burn After Reading” deviates so much from the current comedic mode of Judd Apatow and associates that it should appeal more to mature and adult viewers.

The five or six leads are well-chosen, and the Coens have tailored parts for them that both benefit from and exploit their imagery–on screen and off. Clooney, for one, has played goofy or dopey characters before, as in “O’ Brother Where Art Thou”; even when he plays a suave Cary Grant-like role, as in “Intolerable Cruelty,” sharpest of minds is not his most prominent attribute.

Early on in his career, Pitt showed that he can handle offbeat comedy in such features as Tom Dicillo’s “Johnny Swede” (1991), in a smart cameo in Tony Scott’s “True Romance” (1993), and in a show-off turn as a lunatic in Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” for which he was Oscar-nominated.

The tale begins at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Virginia’s Arlington, with the arrival of analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) for a top-secret meeting. Unfortunately for Cox, “the secret” is soon disclosed that he is unceremoniously ousted, or dumped. As expected, Cox does not take the news well and decides to do something about it. He returns to his Georgetown home to work on his memoirs, and resumes his heavy drinking.

Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) claims to be dismayed, but she is not particularly surprised. Engaged in an adulterous affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal, she begins to plan her own departure from Cox. Did I mention that Harry is married to Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel)

Cut to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged employee of the Hardbodies Fitness Center, cannot concentrate on her work. Far more interested in her upcoming extensive cosmetic surgery, she is upset that the insurance company will not cover her makeover. Linda confides in her strange co-worker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), and with plenty of time on her hands, she arranges for dates with men via the Internet. Not realizing that Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), the gym’s fiftysomething manager, is lusting after her and has his own plans.

Main, highly contrived, event that catapults the so-far character-driven comedy into some action is a product of an accident, when Linda and Chad stumble onto a computer disc that contains classified information for the memoirs of the CIA analyst. Though not particularly bright (none of the characters is), they know a find and an opportunity when they see them and they determine to exploit the situation.

Ted keeps fretting, “No good can come of this,” and he is right. From that point on, the events and individuals spiral out of everyone’s and anyone’s control. The rest of the vastly episodic picture unfolds as a series of encounters that are darkly humorous and largely unbelievable. But from the get-go, it’s clear that the only logic that “Burn After Reading” will follow is its own movieish (il)logic. After all, it’s a movie about sheer lunacy in which the characters are idiots.

There is undeniable pleasure in seeing a bunch of attractive, supremely talented middle-aged thespians going through various midlife crises and relishing the spoofing of their own public persona. There’s also an element of irony: McDomrand, 51, has always been a brilliant, naturalistic actress steering clear of glamorous roles, though she can (and has been) sexy, as in “Laurel Canyon.”

You don’t have to visit the set in order to realize that the process of making this picture must have been more enjoyable to those involved than to the audiences. (You can almost hear Clooney and Pitt say, “Now let’s try doing this scene this way.”).

Known for assigning their protags original goofball names, with double entendre meanings, the Coens don’t disappoint here. They have come up with Osborne Cox for Malkovich, Chad Feldheimer for Pitt, Harry and Sandy Pfarrer for the suburban married couple, and Linda Litzke for gym trainer McDormand; in her Oscar-winning role in “Fargo,” she played Marge Gunderson. (These are names that Preston Sturges, a major influence on the Coens’ satires, would have loved).

“Burn After Reading” is too technically polished to be treated as an exercise, but in many ways it is a movie in which the parts are not only better than the whole, but also don’t add up– they don’t have much cumulative impact.

True to their roots, the Coens are first and foremost stylists, and the new picture shows how visually brilliant they are. You can fault the picture for having montages of courtship and dating (though some are priceless), but I can assure you that some bravura camera movements and sharp positions (high and low-angle) will command your attention.

You don’t have to be a Freudian psychologist to interprest the sharp angle in which Clooney is shot, holding a knife no less, as a send-off of the star’s handsome looks and as phallic parody.

Will the movie become a cult midnight item in the manner of “The Big Lebowski,” which did, though unexpectedly, and years after it was made Hard to tell. However, like most cult films, this comedy has at least half a dozen scenes or moments and lines that will be revisited by fans. Just watch the performance of J.K. Simmons as an eccentric CIA boss, or the eccentricties allotted to each actor. When Clooney’s Harry makes comments about the floor, you inevitably think of the line in “Big Lebowski” about “the rug that ties the room together,” a motif that gets increasingly hilarious by sheer repetition.

“Burn After Reading” was in the works during the shoot and Oscar campaign of the superior “No Country for Old Men,” so it’s not like the Coens were exploiting the phenom of carte blanche, the freedom given to artists to do whatever they want for one film right after winning the Oscar. In other words, there is a method to their madness.

It’s a relief to know that the Coens’ next picture will be very different from–and hopefully better than–this one.


Harry Pfarrer – George Clooney Linda Litzke – Frances McDormand Osborne Cox – John Malkovich Katie Cox – Tilda Swinton Chad Feldheimer – Brad Pitt Ted – Richard Jenkins Sandy Pfarrer – Elizabeth Marvel CIA Officer – David Rasche CIA Superior – JK Simmons Cosmetic Surgeon – Jeffrey DeMunn


A Focus Features release, presented in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media, of a Working Title production. Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Executive producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robert Graf. Directed, written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Camera: Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor: Roderick Jaynes. Music, Carter Burwell. Production designer: Jess Gonchor. Art director: David Swayze. Set decorator: Nancy Haigh. Costume designer: Mary Zophres. Sound: Peter Kurland; supervising sound editor, Skip Lievsay. Re-recording mixers, Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff.

MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 94 Minutes.