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I'm not the only one to notice the pattern in the Coens' filmography:
"Blood Simple." was followed by "Raising Arizona", "Fargo" by "The Big
Lebowski", and "No Country for Old Men" by "Burn After Reading". The
main concern one had about this film is whether it would be an
"Intolerable Cruelty" or a "Big Lebowski" for the Coens. Let's put it
this way: the reviews have been mixed, especially from major mainstream
media critics. Guess what other Coen comedy received mixed reviews and
was accused of being a somewhat tired mess? Yep, "The Big Lebowski".
The Coens' sense of humor is very distinctive, and I'm not talking about stuff like "Intolerable Cruelty" (this one the mainstream media liked, go figure) and "The Ladykillers", which featured numerous commercial concessions. I'm talking about the vicious, cruel, misanthropic farce that gets self-important critics' knickers in a twist. Describing "Burn After Reading" as a screwball spy farce makes it sound much more "Austin Powers" than it is. There is a lot of silliness, but the sort of silliness one finds in a Howard Hawks comedy, not in most comedies that have been made recently. It's a screwball comedy but a pretty dark one.
This is most certainly an acquired taste. It is not going to go down well with people who can't laugh at murder, things going terribly wrong for innocent people, or the Cones' trademark dialogue that pops up even in 'serious' movies like "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men". However, "Burn After Reading" was seemingly tailor-made for my cruel sense of humor, as I found it to be easily the most inspired comedy script in a long time. It's a conspiracy espionage thriller with no stakes, nothing to fight over, a bunch of complete fools and idiots caught in the middle of it ("a league of morons" if you listen to John Malkovich's character), and disastrous consequences for just about everyone. Take out the jokes and you could have a tragedy but as it stands this is the funniest movie the Coens have made since "The Big Lebowski", if not the best, and that includes "O Brother, Where Art Thou?".
One really shouldn't know anything about the plot or how it unfolds prior to seeing it, as this is a film which is far more intricately-plotted than most critics are giving it credit for. The basic concept is that Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt's characters come across a disc they think contains top secret intelligence. What follows is, as described above, a thriller with no stakes and a bunch of idiots. It's one of those movies where you really shouldn't be laughing (for ethical reasons) but are, and it will have you laughing through your disapproval for basically the entirety of the film after the opening fifteen minutes or so, which are rough in comparison to the rest of the film, and to be honest the only thing that keeps this film from being absolutely brilliant and the Coens' best movie since "Lebowski". Just don't go in expecting a movie that looks as beautiful as many of their movies do- Lubezki is no Deakins, at least not based on his work here, and the Coens are very clearly attempting to emulate in many ways the look of the sort of thriller they're basing this on. It's functional, well-shot, and well-directed, but the writing and acting are the main attractions here.
Of course, "Burn After Reading" will be dismissed as having little worth and for being a disposable farce by many. Well, if only they knew how hard it is to do comedy well. I'd reckon this was harder to write than the (admittedly tremendous) "No Country for Old Men", which was adapted from a novel that might as well have been a screenplay if formatted correctly. The movie may not start brilliantly (not that it isn't good even early on), but once the Coens start firing on all cylinders they never stop, and the dream cast certainly doesn't either (Brad Pitt has a smaller role than most cast members here, but he is absolutely brilliant in the role), showing tremendous comic skill that few would have guessed most of them had. The final scene may very well be one of the best I have seen in a long, long time.
"What a clusterf-ck!", indeed.
Nobody is quite there in this new bright farce by the Coen brothers. The plot is a smart excuse for a movie about nothing but appearing to be about a lot of things. Going backwards and forwards at the same time. Talk about "The Russians?" or planning to write a memoir. Brad Pitt is priceless and the innocence of his character is so believable that I wondered how many more surprises this actor has up his sleeve. He is a joy. George Clooney is also terrific and the Coens move through their crossed purposes with speed and elegance. I was totally immerse in their universe even if I didn't quite care what was going on. John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and the unnerving Tilda Swinton complete the package of this movie that feels as if it was made for the sheer pleasure of it.
The point here is that this movie is for adults, with adult themes and adult situations. As with all Coen brother movies, there are going to be people who love it and people that hate it. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground. I loved this movie. It was entertaining, dark and very funny. I really liked "No Country for Old Men" but I have to say, "Burn After Reading" was a more enjoyable film for me. Some of the reviews here have said that the film rambles around pointlessly, without any clear direction; well I have to disagree, if you are paying attention and you are an adult, you should have no problem understanding what is going on. The best part of the movie is watching this great cast perform brilliantly with the odd-ball material they are given. They are all straight men for the Coen brother's antics. There is violence, bad language, and everyone is sleeping with everyone else, especially George Clooney. But the movie is very funny and while the rest of Hollywood seems to have lost there way, the Coen brothers continue to put out intelligent, entertaining and thought provoking material.
BURN AFTER READING is laugh-out-loud funny. It's more "Big Lebowski"
than "Intolerable Cruelty," though there are wisps of both, but "Burn"
is not quite up to Lebowski's genius. Still, it is very, very funny and
loads of fun.
From the opening moments, the Coens' latest movie -- a spy-thriller spoof -- hurls the viewer on a hilarious romp through Absurd-land. What better place to set such a story than Washington, DC?
The story involves a demoted government worker (John Malkovich) who finds himself the target of an extortion scheme by two gym workers, riotously played by Frances McDormand (a would-be gym bunny if only she could afford some plastic surgery) and Brad Pitt (a high-energy, arm-thrusting, hip-shaking fitness trainer-cum-"good Samaritan" who lands himself way in over his head). The romp soon turns dark.
As usual, the Coens' dialog is a real treat. When a co-worker points to Malkovich's alcohol problems as a reason for his demotion, Malkovich retorts, "You're a Mormon. Next to you we all have a drinking problem." And as usual in Coen-land, there's a clash between high and low brow. Malkovich's pronunciations of "mem-wahhh" for "memoir" is a hoot, and his correction of Pitt's mistaken "report" for "rapport" propels a conflict between classes and types -- symbols of a society in trouble, whose priorities are askew.
As in the Coen brothers' 1987 box-office hit RAISING ARIZONA, obsessions fuel the plot, though this time it's body (not baby) obsession. McDormand is hellbent on getting expensive elective surgery to "reinvent" herself. Pitt is a workout addict, who can barely stop moving long enough to think straight. And George Clooney, who can only stop talking when it's time to go running or jump into bed with someone, plays a G-man fixated on sex. Notions of "intelligence" and all that the word connotes (along with its antonyms) mix into the film's dark comedic brew of unintended consequences.
Where does it go? I don't want to give away any of the twists to answer that question in depth. But I would disagree with the critics who claim it doesn't go anywhere. The movie and its over-the-top, needless violence show how secretive missions even by bumbling know-nothings (whose only knowledge of undercover ops seems to come from spy flicks) can have disastrous outcomes. Secrets in Washington? Sure sounds like a topic we should all be better versed in.
- Erica Rowell Author: The Brothers Grim: The Films of Ethan and Joel Coen http://www.amazon.com/Brothers-Grim-Films-Ethan-Joel/dp/0810858509
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It makes me sad that, with such great actors to work with, the best the Coens could do is make a mish-mash comedy/drama/horror that was lukewarm at best and boring at its worst. I felt sorry for the actors; they had so little of interest to say or do. I almost fell asleep about 20 minutes in. Where was the madcap screwball comedy? Where was the dark ironic humor? It was all just one-dimensional darkness. Where was the good editing? (i.e. we never saw Clooney holding the gun but we know he shot Pitt in the closet.) Instead we get pointless, morose and dull. This movie coulda been a contender. These characthers coulda been somebody. Instead they're really just forgettable. And that's just a waste.
There's a point in this movie that George Clooney's character, Harry
Pfarrer shows Frances McDormand's character Linda Litzke something that
we've seen him working on for about half the movie. It was so
surprising when I first saw it, that at first, I didn't even know what
Once again, the Coens have created wonderful characters, including Clooney, who is a womanizer and paranoid that people are following him, and McDormand, who just wants plastic surgery in order to look better. Also, there's John Malkovich as Osbourne Cox, who "doesn't have a drinking problem," and maybe the best in the movie, Brad Pitt as Chad, a clueless gym employee who is pushed along by McDormand.
The only character that isn't up to par with the rest is Tilda Swinton's character of Katie Cox, Osbourne's wife. She doesn't get as many laughs as the rest, and it seems like the Coens just needed her as a plot device rather than an actual character. However, she may not be funny, but she does play the character well.
The writing is brilliant and the Coens weave the story in such a way that it reminds me of their previous movie, The Big Lebowski. In the end, as J.K. Simmons character sums it up himself, nothing really happens, but while watching it all unfold, you can't help but laugh at the absurdity.
Norman Cousins would have loved the Coen Brothers' "Burn After
Reading." The late great Saturday Review editor had treated his illness
with Marx Brothers movies, having "made the joyous discovery that 10
minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would
give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep."
I have never felt healthier than after 96 minutes of explosive and grateful laughter at the "Burn" screening, also marveling at the array of British-stage caliber acting from "Fargo"-invoking Frances McDormand, witchy-icy Tilda Swinton, a more-manic-than-ever John Malkovich, and a dozen major players, such as J.K. Simmons as the deadpan CIA boss and Richard Jenkins as the former Greek Orthodox priest, now running an upscale gym.
Others may lead the cast list with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but to me, their performances were just a bit on the self-conscious side, trying too hard. At any rate, it's a great cast, and while the plot might have turned into a dud in somebody else's treatment, the Coen Brothers' writing is hilarious, their zingers deadly.
A critic, probably with bad digestion, has decried this "very black comedy set in a blanched, austere-looking Washington, D.C. an uninspiring and uncomfortable place in which everyone betrays everyone else, and the emotional tone veers from icy politeness to spitting rage and back again." If I had a chance to think, instead of enjoying "Burn," I would have contemplated Molière and Evelyn Waugh, their comedies of manners, psychological insight, and unbridled great humor.
Yes, there are betrayals (none better than the totally unexpected one at the end of the film), and there is rage, but all contained within a glorious bubble of writing-directing-acting excellence. "Burn" grips and holds, surprises and entertains, it is a virtuoso piece.
Don't be misled by the a "action-trailer" on TV, saturating the airwaves; it says nothing of the film. Malkovich punching Pitt over a compromising CD of spook stuff is not at the heart of this - the McDormand character's pursuit of cosmetic surgery is, what with her self-examination, a lengthy session with the surgeon (Jeffrey DeMunn, in a brilliant turn), her desperate quest for a way to pay for it. Funny and going deep at the same time, "Burn" presents a series of character studies (hence the thought of Molière), in the context of mannered yet true social interactions (Waugh).
Skip descriptions of the plot, reject self-righteous denunciations of smart skepticism and charming evil, go and wallow in life-affirming laughter.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading" is a movie so thoughtless, so
arrogant, and so poorly executed that it has forced me to re-consider
my opinion of their previous films and seriously raised the question of
whether they've been frauds all along.
Joel & Ethan C. have always had an "offbeat" sense of humor and an "unusual" way of making movies, but fans like myself have always reasoned they were simply following their Muse and making the movies they had to make. With "Burn After Reading" they present us with an espionage "spoof" whose sense of humor is on par with that of the world's worst rejected sitcom pilot, and you have to wonder: Is this what they've truly been all along?
Brad Pitt, George Clooney & Frances McDormand all star as Themselves; no attempt is made at building characters or adhering to any storyline reality. Brad dances because he likes to dance, George panics because it worked well in "O Brother." The "plot" is ostensibly about amateurs entering the spy game with comedic results, but it breaks down so fast and so completely it's not even worth mentioning.
No matter how many times McDormand blinks cute and begs us to remember Fargo's Marge there's no hiding the fact that the finished product here looks as if there was NO development done whatsoever. The movie feels like Joel & Ethan thought it would be a lark and filmed the whole deal in a week with a digital camera. The garbage that resulted is the death of cinema: Hollywood home videos with million dollar paychecks.
I reserve the F grade for movies that are beyond bad movies that have somehow crossed the line between respectable failure and offensive insult. If you like movies you'll avoid this one, and if you like the Coen Brothers you won't after witnessing the crime they commit here. Stay far away.
This film will not be to everyones taste, and I wholly understand the
polarised responses.A star studded cast enjoy a knowing, wordy script,
where dialogue counts, a Coen brothers trademark.However not very much
happens, and the narrative is disjointed, so the pace of the story is
very staccato.But once again the result is something very wide of the
Hollywood mainstream and is all the more satisfying for it.
A 95 minute running time,, and several separate but interwoven plots, mean that screen time for individual actors is limited. Consequently each shines in their given roles, relishing the word play and eking the maximum out of each situation.No scene is dwelled upon, and the occasional bloody outburst of violence, or titillating appearance of a Sybian machine , is shown then moved on from before you have time to work out exactly what is going on.
The script is littered with double entendres, "running gags (pun intended)and lines aimed straight at the audience from the screen. No-one knows what is going on, or what has gone on, or what is going to happen, and is all the better for it.A mini-masterpiece.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The one pet peeve I have is when the writing is bad they start throwing
in bad language hoping it will get a laugh. I'm sorry but I think if
you took out every "F" bomb dropped in this movie... there'd be no
The movie was disjointed... I know some movies are meant to be avant guard... but even those weird artsy movies make SOME sense. There were too many things going on, it seemed at times even the actors didn't know what scene they were involved in.
The plot between the Linda and her boss was just stupid and misplayed by the writers. And just when you think there's FINALLY going to be something amusing... they "SHOCK" you back into realizing the movie sucks.
The whole movie was a boring yawn fest. I'm not sure what so many people saw in this film. I felt like burning the movie projector after watching! And the ending, don't get me started... definitely not worth even the matinée prices.
The only thing I liked about this movie was Sledge Hammer star David Rasche, and only because it gave me a Sledge Hammer flashback.
I love George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and I usually like the Coen brothers... but this is one movie I wouldn't even wait till it came on DVD for. Just avoid it.
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