Osbourne Cox, a Balkan expert, resigned from the CIA because of a drinking problem, so he begins a memoir. His wife wants a divorce and expects her lover, Harry, a philandering State Department marshal, to leave his wife. A CD-ROM falls out of a gym bag at a Georgetown fitness center. Two employees there try to turn it into cash: Linda, who wants money for cosmetic surgery, and Chad, an amiable goof. Information on the disc leads them to Osbourne who rejects their sales pitch; then they visit the Russian embassy. To sweeten the pot, they decide they need more of Osbourne's secrets. Meanwhile, Linda's boss likes her, and Harry's wife leaves for a book tour. All roads lead to Osbourne's house.Written by
On the Criterion Blu-ray of Blood Simple (1984), in "Shooting Blood Simple" featurette with Barry Sonnenfeld, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen reveal that the joke involving the sex chair built by Harry Pfarrer was taken directly from key grip Tom Prophet Jr., who built a very similar device in real life, and cited the exact same reasons as Harry. See more »
In the final scene with Linda, in which she's being picked up by the CIA, an agent pulls alongside her on the right. In the second shot depicting him, the car is in the same spot, in a traffic lane (not parked), but the shifter is in the Park position. See more »
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.
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