Burn After Reading

2 out of 5 stars

Let’s say you’re the Coen brothers and you’ve delivered the elegiac, majestic No Country for Old Men. You don’t follow it up with a movie that’s equally serious; rather, you revert back to knucklehead-humor mode, a Tolstoy-to–Tex Avery sucker punch that’s worked wonders for the siblings before (from Blood Simple and Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski). You still have to make an effort to produce something of quality, however, which has apparently slipped the Coens’ minds this time around. Granted, this tale of a former CIA analyst (Malkovich) and what he calls “the league of morons” blackmailing him would seem slight and slapdash coming after most of the brothers’ other works. But the transition from Oscar-winning masterpiece to this mess is especially depressing. Burn After Reading is a disposable lark, and it’s treated by the filmmakers as such; Forget After Seeing would be a far more honest title.

It’s not a total loss: You still get Frances McDormand spitting out primo rapid, vapid patter, and Brad Pitt sporting a pompadour that ranks between H.I. McDunnough and Barton Fink’s impressively vertical ’dos. After that, however, the pickings are slim. George Clooney’s lunkheaded lothario continues a curious losing streak with the Coens (why do their collaborations never jell?), and the attempt to blend Pakula-era paranoia with cheap gallows humor simply devolves into atonal anarchy. At the end, one peripheral character asks another, “What did we learn here? I guess we learned not to do [that] again!” Amen.


Release details

Release date:
Friday September 12 2008
96 mins

Cast and crew

Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Tilda Swinton
George Clooney
Brad Pitt
Frances McDormand
John Malkovich
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