Burn After Reading

September 12th, 2008


Burn After Reading

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Still of John Malkovich in Burn After ReadingStill of Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Burn After ReadingTilda Swinton at event of Burn After ReadingStill of John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton in Burn After ReadingStill of George Clooney in Burn After ReadingStill of Tilda Swinton in Burn After Reading

A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it.

Release Year: 2008

Rating: 7.1/10 (130,621 voted)

Critic's Score: 63/100

Director: Ethan Coen

Stars: Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney

Osbourne Cox, a Balkan expert, is fired at the CIA, 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 diskette 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 elective 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.

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

George Clooney - Harry Pfarrer
Frances McDormand - Linda Litzke
Brad Pitt - Chad Feldheimer
John Malkovich - Osborne Cox
Tilda Swinton - Katie Cox
Richard Jenkins - Ted
Elizabeth Marvel - Sandy Pfarrer
David Rasche - CIA Officer
J.K. Simmons - CIA Superior (as JK Simmons)
Olek Krupa - Krapotkin
Michael Countryman - Alan
Kevin Sussman - Tuchman Marsh Man
J.R. Horne - Divorce Lawyer (as JR Horne)
Hamilton Clancy - Peck
Armand Schultz - Olson

Taglines: A high stakes love life and Jewel CIA shelter.


Official Website: Official site | Official site [Spain] |

Release Date: 12 September 2008

Filming Locations: Bronx Community College - University Avenue at West 181 Street, Bronx, New York City, New York, USA

Box Office Details

Budget: $37,000,000 (estimated)

Opening Weekend: $19,128,001 (USA) (14 September 2008) (2651 Screens)

Gross: $163,720,069 (Worldwide) (25 December 2008)

Technical Specs


Did You Know?

The opening film of the 2008 Venice Film Festival.

Factual errors: At the end of the film, when the CIA supervisor opens & closes a file marked "Top Secret", the file's cover-sheet is outlined in red. This is an error because the cover-sheet of all "Top Secret" classified files are outlined in orange. Red is saved for the cover-sheets of all classified files marked "Secret" and blue is used for the cover-sheets of all classified files marked "Confidential".

Harry Pfarrer: Maybe I can get a run in.

User Review

The Coens' funniest film since "The Big Lebowski"


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.



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