Burn After Reading reviewed.

Reviews of the latest films.
Sept. 11 2008 5:38 PM

Burn After Reading

But pause before seeing the new Coen brothers movie.

To listen to Slate's Spoiler Special about Burn After Reading, click the arrow button on the player: You can also click here to download the MP3 file, or you can subscribe to the Spoiler Special podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.

After No Country for Old Men's rapturous (to my mind, overly so) reception at the Oscars, the Coen brothers have returned to the kind of movie that made their name: an arch black comedy about provincial losers on the make. In a weird way, the cheerfully nonsensical spy caper Burn After Reading (Focus Features)is almost like a comic version of No Country. In both movies, a small-time blunderer gets a hold of some stolen property and, in the attempt to profit from this luck, gets in way over his or her head with some seriously bad dudes. But whereas No Country was ponderous, Burn After Reading is flip. The decay of America's moral fabric, the new movie implies, is no reason for bleak despair and breakfast-table hand-wringing; it's just the brutally funny truth.

Burn After Reading's roundelay of buffoons is set in motion by Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who's fired in the opening scene because of a drinking problem. After venting his outrage at this injustice, Cox goes home to drink—and to bounce some career plans off his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), an icy shrew who's plotting to leave him for federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Meanwhile, the first draft of Cox's grandiose personal memoir somehow winds up on a disk on the floor of the Hardbodies gym, where it's intercepted by personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Convinced that he has some "classified shit" on his hands, Chad shows the document to his co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). As it happens, Linda has been trying to raise money for the extensive cosmetic surgery that she's convinced she needs in order to catch a man. So the barely functional Linda convinces the even dumber Chad to help her shake down Cox for $50,000.

Advertisement

The joke is that the intel at the center of this spy story is utterly without value. Cox doesn't care about getting his disk back; he only wants to get a bead on the motives of these two clueless blackmailers. Chad and Linda carry on like characters from a Graham Greene novel, arranging drop-off points and meetings with Russian diplomats, oblivious to the fact that their faux MacGuffin is getting them in real trouble. It's a clever setup for a spoof of the espionage thriller, but despite the film's intermittent pleasures (Pitt's gum-snapping dolt chief among them), the result is oddly airless.

Part of the problem is a plot twist two-thirds of the way through that abruptly changes the tone from devil-may-care lark to nihilistic joke. I've written before on the Coens' sadism toward their audience. The brothers' penchant for pulling out the rug from beneath our feet and then snickering when we fall down was what kept me from giving myself over to the otherwise powerful No Country for Old Men. Asimilar tactic undercuts the momentum of Burn After Reading; when something awful happens to one of the few characters worth rooting for, the energy simply rushes out of the movie.

Still, for those who like their black comedy without a trace of cream or sugar, Burn holds up as a minor Coen brothers comedy, a Hudsucker Proxy rather than a Big Lebowski. It zips along at 95 minutes, features lots of A-listers enjoying the chance to mug broadly, and delivers at least a dozen big laughs. Several of these come from the indispensable J.K. Simmons as a pragmatic CIA head. (Is there another actor alive who can bark from behind a desk with the authority of J.K. Simmons?) "No biggie," he tells a nervous underling who's briefing him on the unfolding mayhem. "Report back to me when all this makes sense."

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.