Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers’ latest black, black comedy of errors follows a group of thick-sculled, mean-spirited, surface-obsessed, selfish, moronic imbeciles. It’s an extreme and unflatteringly hilarious portrait of America but a believable one nonetheless. In terms of plot, tone and craft, Burn After Reading‘s kissing cousin is most certainly Fargo. Critics, understandably, are frustrated that the film lacks Fargo‘s moral center, but that film takes place in a rural winterland where one can make a happy living birthing babies and illustrating postage stamps. Burn takes place in Washington DC. Therein lies the film’s vicious, misanthropic, cold hearted conceit–in Washington DC everybody is both larger than life and a douche bag (and as goes Washington, sadly, so goes the nation). Given all the political nastiness occuring 24 hours a day on LCD screens large and small, the Coen Brothers have appropriated Aaron Sorkin’s dark other, offering up a gleefully caustic evisceration of human folly (though I will admit that amid the blood, the goat cheese, the Mamba Juice and the dildo there are hints of humanity struggling to reach the surface). I loved it. Sure, Brad Pitt overacts, but he’s so much fun to watch. Clooney, Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, Francis McDormand: all are top notch. The film is tightly edited and never drags. And J.K. Simmons masterfully (and uncharacteristically) underplays three brief scenes and nearly steals the entire show. His line reading in one particular moment (“Russia?”) is worth fifty bridges to nowhere.

11 thoughts on “Burn After Reading”

  1. I’ll echo Jeff’s incisive take on the film, and affirm his affirmation — it was funny, sharp, effective. Small qualification: it’s a solid B, no Lebowski, alas, but a delightful return to Coenworld (rather than the soggier stuff of the last two comedies)…

    I’m also interested in why this gets (from some) a critical pasting for its meanness, when it so consistently returns to the mechanics, technique, and ethos of (most? all?) Coen films. They are never countries for old men, or innocent schmoes. Survival is happenstance; everyone has an idee fixe they absurdly follow, despite all evidence to the contrary.

  2. Well, if you know Jeff Turner, you have to know that I love the Dude, but I think the rambling, stoner rhythms of Lebowski to be both a good and bad thing. Everytime I see that film on TV or even throw it in the DVD player, I cannot make it all the way through. It meanders like the tumbling, tumbling tumbleweed that carries us into the darned thing. It’s got some great moments, scenes and characters, but I don’t think it holds together (Reynolds will tell me that’s the point). I feel the same about Raising Arizona; the first forty minutes or so are beautiful and then I start to get bored. I find the stars, the numbers, the thumbs and/or the middle-school grading approach to film criticism to be frustrating (thank you Siskel and Ebert). And maybe it’s the season. but Burn is consistently fun and given the number of characters and plot lines, the film feels more coherent than the above mentioned Coen Bros faves. Sure, I’ll give it a B/B+, or maybe three stars, definitely a thumbs up.


    Over at Aintitcool, Mr. Beaks hones in on something I poorly attempted to articulate yesterday. He writes, “Whereas most Coen noirs are more firmly rooted in the works of Hammett (MILLER’S CROSSING), Chandler (THE BIG LEBOWSKI) and Cain (THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE), the low-level shenanigans of BURN AFTER READING play like a D.C.-bound goof on the spy fiction of John le Carré; except, instead of being bound to lifeless, unfeeling nations, these scurrying fools are beholden to instant gratification. They want what they perceive is best for them as soon as possible, and they’re willing, particularly in the case of Linda Litzke, to sacrifice the security of their country to obtain it.”

    Burn After Reading appeals to me even more than earlier Coen Brothers films, because I’ll argue (perhaps moving the goal posts a bit on Mr. Beaks) the film functions as a critique of our “unfeeling nation.” The personal shenanigans on view open up a larger political critique, offering a rage-fueled indictment of the last eight years of political mess-making in D.C. Fuck, fuck, fuck indeed! The film is a colossal cluster-fuck of misguided, irresponsible selfishness, and I’m going to argue this is the Coen Brothers’ “08 election” movie whether they intended it to be or not.

  3. Well, despite being wrong about Lebowski, which is sublime and perfect, your read of Burn is very persuasive–just smart and sharp. You gave me a better appreciation of the film.

    Now kiss me, you big lug!

  4. Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! Not cool, Ralphie, not cool.

    In the above I am humorously referencing Garry Marshall’s 1970s’ series “Happy Days,” which often used the epithet “Sit on it”. I, however, in a sly turn on John’s citation, take the persona of the uber-cool Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, who often chided the hoi polloi, particularly Ralph Malph, about their rhetorical strategies.

    Thus begins the first in my series “Explaining the humor at We Like To Watch,” intended to help our expanding audience find an entrypoint into the dense, culturally-rich stew that is our blog.

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