Burn After Reading

Infidelity and Violence Make for the Best Comedy of the Year

Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt

By Robert Patrick

You would think that the Coen brothers, fresh off their first place win at the Academy finish line, would slow down and hydrate before even thinking about sprinting again. With the duo’s newest picture, Burn After Reading, there seems to be no such idea. Joel and Ethan’s usual cavalcade of cankerous and ambivalent characters are once again in top form, engaging in ludicrously malevolent behavior, and smiling like crestfallen angels while doing so. The brothers, in all of their black hole humor and typical cynicism, are hitting on all cylinders with their newest endeavor.

Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is having a particularly bad time: he has just lost a recordable disc with his CIA memoirs branded onto it. When two hapless gym employees, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), find the potentially classified documents and decide to blackmail Cox, a seismic eruption of infidelity, violence, and perverse wit ensue.

Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), seemingly sequestered from the situation, is cheating on his wife – with not one, but many women. Harry has the leisurely congeniality of a man with confidence and décor, though he is scared and constantly belittled by the people he knows, and admired by those he does not. Only content to straighten his tie, talc up his neck, and moose over his hair, he leads a life without morals or standards. A self-centered womanizer with puppy dog sensibilities, women realize that Harry is vacuous by nature, no matter how much they are instinctually drawn to him, but they keep coming back anyway.

The situation gets even stickier when Harry gets mixed up with Linda on a blind date. Linda, who loathes her body, would want to be like Harry if only she could feel superfluously self-assured enough to do so. Instead, she meanders around in a stewing pot of depreciation and guilt. This all changes when her co-worker, Chad, reveals that the disc with high ranking, security breaching information written on it has subtantiated value. The flamboyant, ever energetic Chad behaves boyishly about the potentially dangerous transcripts, and decides that he and Linda should “seek a reward” for its return. This decision, spawned by a desperate woman and her airhead gym instructor, ends up costing them more than they earn.

The CIA man in question is Osborne Cox. Laid off by his bosses, Cox can barely pull himself up by his coattails. Our unemployed pseudo-protaganist – if there is one in the film – carries himself with a foul mouthed bravado that would make a sailor blush. Demoralized by his superiors, and run out of the house by his wife, the binge drinking Cox is finally harassed by the bumbling gym employees – until he loses it and decides to fight back.

Chad, thinking that the beleaguered Cox will play into his hands, finds the entire episodic adventure to be innocently funny, if not altogether amusing. Too forward to be a coward, but too meek to cause any harm, Chad walks a fine line of danger that is drawn, more often than not, by his friend, Linda. Chad thinks that blackmail is a game, and lacks the self preservation to acknowledge that he is in real trouble. Linda thinks that blackmail is her ticket to liposuction – obviously knowing the heightened risks involved – but she is too desperate to adhere to them.

At the end of the movie, every character rues the day they interfered with each other. But for the audience, the movie is a glimpse into the darker side of humanity. And, though it’s disturbing to say, it may be the smartest comedy of the year. Clooney’s acting, full of excitable wit and dead pan humor, is great to watch as he bends his brow, widens his eyes, and wags his winder in a manic display of imperfection and paranoia. In fact, all of the characters have their insecurities rooted so deeply that they can barely move unless a wind of change forces them to.

Marbled with black comedy, Burn After Reading is one of the better ensemble pictures of the decade. If Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet ever had the chance to collaborate together, you may have seen this movie construct itself with just as much zip and irony as the talented Coen brothers have most aptly displayed here. The centerfold to the film is the action and humility, while the binding is the fastened social commentary. What a monolith to the character drama this fine film really is.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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