A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it.
Despite a great cast and a farcical set up, ‘Burn After Reading‘ never really comes together for me and it’s one of the weakest films I’ve seen from the Coen Brothers. One of the problems it has is that it just isn’t that funny, and the situation which initially seems promising doesn’t really amount to much. You can see the mechanics at work in how the plot unfolds, but the lengths that the characters go too to suit their own agenda doesn’t feel realistic and it detracts from the overall experience.
I don’t mind a bit of outlandishness in character choices, and quirky traits are something we’ve come to expect from the Coen’s throughout their career, but they aren’t as adept at selling these choices here. To be honest, I can’t quite put my finger on where things go wrong for ‘Burn After Reading‘. The acting itself is of reasonable standard, and the premise is sound, but I think the problem occurs with the choice to push the characters motivations beyond their logical end point. For example, I didn’t buy that the idiot character played by Brad Pitt would continue to go to different embassies when the CD was obviously worthless (Frances McDormand’s character at least had a little motivation explained). I didn’t buy Richard Jenkins character digging into things himself. In previous films, characters have had to follow things through to the very end because the consequences of not doing so would be so devastating, such as death, jail, exile etc. In this? Nothing would change if characters would have just given up.
I understand that’s not going to happen because it’s a film and the plot must keep moving, but I don’t think the Coen’s succeed in selling this to the audience, and even aside that, it’s not as funny or as entertaining as it needs to be to keep me invested. With that all being said, the ending still manages to feel incredibly abrupt, with the story resolutions feeling unsatisfactory.
On the positives, it’s great to see the excellent John Malkovich in a Coen Brothers movie, and he’s very entertaining throughout as the highly strung and frustrated Osbourne Cox, a former CIA analyst. The rest of the cast are decent enough, although Brad Pitt is a little irritating, but none of them are able to save this from being a disappointment for me.
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, J. K. Simmons, David Rasche and Jeffrey DeMunn