Toronto Review: The Coen Brother's Burn After Reading
by Alex Billington
September 6, 2008
Comedy from chaos - that's what Burn After Reading is all about. Essentially this film is a chaotic ensemble drama about six intersecting characters - but remarkably it's hilarious. I don't know how the Coen Brothers did it, but all of the eclectic characters they gathered together in Burn After Reading all really shined through in the finished product. The only problem was the felt it a bit skimpy, like there could have been so much more. At only 96 minutes in length, the film plays fairly well throughout most of it, but ends abruptly and often mixes darker elements and comedy, not always successfully. However, it's still a smart comedy with a hilarious ensemble cast that most people will end up enjoying thoroughly.
CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) decides to leave his job after he's cited for "drinking problems," and starts writing memoirs in order to pass the time and eventually make some money. Unfortunately his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with Harry (George Clooney), a womanizing, gun-toting chauvinist. When Chad (Brad Pitt) and co-worker Linda (Frances McDormand) accidentally find a disk containing files and documents for Cox's memoir in the gym, they attempt to blackmail him. And all hell breaks loose when Harry starts spending time with Linda all because she's desperate for attention. When the lives of all of them eventually start to clash together, chaos and comedy ensue.
While I definitely enjoyed Burn After Reading, for some reason that I can't exactly figure out, I didn't love it like I was expecting. Its problems may lie in the rather abrupt ending (that comes well before you want it to) and murky mix of comedy and suspense. When characters start getting shot and you're trying to laugh all at the same time, it gets a bit confusing. Burn is definitely not a mess of a film, but it's not a comedy classic either. Honestly, only the Coen Brothers could actually write such dry humor and wrap it around the story of an ex-CIA agent on the edge of insanity. Malkovich definitely earns my respect for easily being one of the funniest characters I've seen all year, while Pitt comes in a close second. As much as I loved watching all of eclectic characters go crazy, I just wish I could've been able to spend more time with each.
Toronto Rating: 8 out of 10