Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008)


Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), John Malkovich (Osbourne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox). Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen. Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. Rating: 15. Running time: 96 minutes.

Every Coen brothers film has to revolve around a gloriously absurd situation, right? Right, and Burn After Reading is no exception. Here we have John Malkovich generally bamboozled by what’s happening to him, walking around yelling ‘what the fuck?’ and eventually executing a murder in his dressing gown with an axe, as seen above. We’ve also got Brad Pitt working in a fitness centre and thinking he’s discovered ‘hardcore CIA shit’ on a disc left in the changing rooms, and Frances McDormand as his coworker thinking it’s a good excuse to blackmail its owner out of a hefty sum that will pay for her cosmetic surgery. Throw in George Clooney as a designer of a dildo-swinging chair, as well as Tilda Swinton for good measure, and we’ve got an all-star cast playing people who are all nuts, every one of which is doing their stuff for the Coen brothers in a film that ends up being intentionally and perfectly bonkers.

The problem is it’s also supposed to be quite funny, and unfortunately more often than not the feeling is better described as inexplicable coldness rather than appreciation of sheer hilarity. Most of the laughs come from Pitt and Malkovich, and it’s only fair to compliment McDormand too for being as magically eccentric as always (just imagine observing a day in her household, married to Joel Coen. Surely the coolest and quirkiest marriage of all time?). But this doesn’t detract from the fact that most of Burn After Reading is very tough to find amusing. It’s not too important that the mishaps we observe are as confusing to us as they are to the characters, because The Big Lebowski got pretty baffling at times too and obviously that was still gold. The issue is moreso just that the exchanges, whilst well acted, simply don’t tickle the funny bone in the way they should as seen so many times before in the likes of Fargo. Maybe I cannot detect humour well enough when it’s this dark; it’s quite possible given they’re clearly still geniuses. It’s just a shame on this occasion we can’t join them in laughing along too much at their own creation.

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