Review: ‘Burn After Reading’

Burn Before Watching.

After a covert agency housed deep in the Pentagon (well, just the CIA, actually) fires one of their analysts (John Malkovich), he decides to write a tell-all memoir. The disgraced analysts’ wife (Tilda Swinton) is secretly plotting to divorce her husband because of her involvement with another man (George Clooney). Unknown to the wife is that her other man trolls Internet dating sites looking for lonely women and hooking up. In the meanwhile, a gym employee (Brad Pitt) makes the assessment that a found disk is full of government secrets, and his fellow employee (Frances McDormand) decides that the only way she can pay for elective surgeries to make herself over is either by blackmailing the disk’s owner or selling the secrets to another government.

From the setup above, you’d think this was the beginning of a quirky comedic Indie thriller. And you’d be right; it is the beginning, but that’s all the further it gets since what follows seems to be whatever popped into the head’s of the writers no matter how bizarre. The one thing the movie seems especially capable of doing is stringing you along just a little farther into incoherency, making promises with small, interesting bits that somehow all of this will work out and make sense. Sadly, at the point that even that characters themselves are asking the question, “Why the hell am I still watching any of this,” the filmmakers instruct audiences through the script itself to “Just keep watching until it DOES make sense.” Trickery!

This, of course, is the famous “Thelma and Louise” scriptwriting defense; it doesn’t matter what the characters do because all this will be swept under the rug at the end with the stroke of a pen and a line of dialog. It’s an Oscar-Bait trick; if a film full of good actors doesn’t make any sense, it must be brilliant since nobody other than the filmmakers can figure out the point, or that (surprise!) the point is that there IS no point (see how clever we are?) There is also the possibility that cuts may have been ordered to shorten the running time, missing scenes that, if edited back in, may have fixed the flow and helped the final cut balance out. As it is, it’s an irresponsible mess.

Again, the film has clever bits that string you along, either bizarre revelations or shocking moments that carry key scenes, but these don’t go anywhere afterward. An overarching narration of what the audience must be going through is amusingly acted out onscreen by CIA officers played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, but it really feels like the elaborate excuse that it is: they’re making it up as they go. All of this, by the way, is brought to you through the penmanship (okay, fine, word processor) of the Coen Brothers, a pair of writer/directors famous for walking the line between the plausible and the bizarre. Still, we seem to get a Raising Arizona for every Hudsucker Proxy, or a Big Lebowski for every Intolerable Cruelty, or perhaps No Country for Old Men resulted in this. Whatever their reason, their next film should be amazing, right?

(a one skull recommendation out of four)


  1. Wow.
    So, you really didn’t understand at all, huh?
    That’s unfortunate.
    It does, however, explain why so many filmmakers have to dumb things down these days.
    I don’t blame you for not signing your name to your review.


  2. Gasp! We GET it now…! You’re acting just like they did in the movie… as if they know something, but they don’t know anything! Thank you for showing us the true enlightenment of the Coen Brothers and we’ll see you at the meeting next Tuesday.


  3. A perfect example of a disorganized collection of good scenes and great Malkovich dialogue with absolutely no shred of a plot. Idiocy is not always profundity. The Doors have been gone for a long time. 1 boner out of 10.



Speak up, Mortal -- and beware of Spoilers!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s