Burn After Reading

I have a drinking problem? Fuck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon. Compared to you we ALL have a drinking problem!” – Osbourne Cox, Burn After Reading (2008).

You know, I often go down to my local town, browse a few shops and end up coming back with a haul of DVDs. Most of the time I’ll have never seen the film and heard exceptional things about it. Such was the case of Burn After Reading, a Coen Brothers directed piece starring an ensemble cast. I’d researched the film beforehand like I often do, and the reviews were pretty good. So why didn’t I like it?

I mean, what’s not to like? Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) decides to work on his memoirs about his time at the CIA. His CD drops out of his pocket, and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) hold it ransom, in the hopes that it will make some money. Of course, there are some side plots too. Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) are having an affair, which leads to Pfarrer becoming paranoid.

See, that story does seem like something I would enjoy. It’s a plot packed to the brim with fakeouts, misunderstandings and more which lead to our characters ultimate fates. But there’s something about this flick that just didn’t sit right for me. Sure, the plot is interesting, but interesting and impact are two different things. The impact just wasn’t there for this plot. There was no moment of clarity or surprise as we get taken through this film. See, the problem with that is that the plot just shuffles along at the speed it wants to. At times it becomes distracted and overall just isn’t very well written.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some knockout lines and gags in here. However hailing this film as a comedy? I just don’t see it. Not even as a black comedy. Like I’ve said in my Django Unchained (2012) review, all action films have some comedic moments. It’s no exception here, but here the comedy stands out because everything else is so dull.

Malkovich and Clooney were the highlights of this film for me (Burn After Reading – 2008 – CC. Focus Features)

But unlike the writing and direction, the performances are in fact pretty damn solid. The highlights for me were of course John Malkovich and George Clooney. Seeing John Malkovich have a mental breakdown in the opening three minutes of the film is the best way to start a film. It’s just a shame the film never really reaches that level of madness again. See, initially the story is simply focused on Malkovich writing his memoirs and how pretty much everyone is against him.

All of a sudden we switch to someone new, Linda, who at first did seem very irritating to me. I thought her character was going to be grating and annoying. Thankfully I was wrong, she works surprisingly well with Brad Pitt. This definitely isn’t the best Brad Pitt performance though, especially when you realise that Inglorious Basterds (2009) was released a year later.

Also, J.K. Simmons is in this film. Now as far as I know, the only other film I’ve recognised him in is that horrendously terrible Postal (2006) film. But that is a story for another day. Simmons in this film seems to play a CIA chief operator, but one that never interacts with any of the other characters. Out of all of the roles in this film, it seemed like Simmons had the most competent of all. Mainly because he portrayed my feelings about this film rather well. Towards the end of the film he states he simply never understands what went on, and probably never will. That’s how I felt to be fair.

Aside from Simmons, there was a notably tiny role in the form of that guy that plays Stuart from The Big Bang Theory (2007 – Ongoing). The only difference is that in Burn After Reading his scene is small and he is actually moderately funny. I can’t really describe what happens because that would ruin the scene, but it’s possibly one of the better parts of the film. When you think about it like that, it does become very poor that this is in fact a better part of the film.

See, my question throughout this ordeal was, well, how do the stories link together? Sure, you could say that Malkovich’s story links to McDormand because of the CD. McDormand links to Clooney who links to Swinton who links to Malkovich. If this had been an anthology of stories, or hell even if it was just separate plots entirely, it would have worked. But trying to mash all of these vaguely related plots together is dreadfully done. This answer will always be nonexistent to me, simply because there is no cognitive way that they can in fact link together. It’s really flimsy in the way they link together, I won’t give it away though.

Seeing John Malkovich slowly lose his marbles was, well it was brilliant (Burn After Reading – 2008 – CC. Focus Features)

As far as I know, everyone is having an affair to some degree and I’m not sure how that works. There are far too many different storylines on the go at once that it pieces together rather poorly. For me, the Coen Brothers most certainly did not bring their A-Game to this film and it really let me down. Still, seeing George Clooney smash up a dildo bike was sort of funny.

Maybe it’s my fault I didn’t like this movie? I was under the pretense that this film was a very funny comedy. I adore black comedy, but this comes nowhere near to the likes of the aforementioned Inglorious Basterds. There are some funny scenes though, notably George Clooney’s dildo bike, that’s a highlight of this film. It reminded me of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s (2005 – Ongoing) recent episode with Mac and his AssPounder. We’re getting off topic, it was quite comedic and that’s all there is to it.


I think my problem was, again, I was expecting so much more. I mean, come on, how could I not expect a hell of a lot? A Coen Brothers movie with a cast consisting of Malkovich, Clooney, Swinton and Pitt? Come on, tell me you were expecting a mediocre film and I would simply not believe you. Everything is well acted, absolutely no doubt about that, but unfortunately that is not enough to support a poor plot. It’s competently acted, but there’s no real way of me recommending this film because of its failures in storytelling.

A strong performance from John Malkovich and an exceptional one by Clooney just isn’t enough for me anymore. The comedy was dull throughout, with one or two highlighting moments. Still, it could have been a lot worse, it’s competently crafted. For me, I realised too late that the comedy was taking a back seat to the poorly constructed plot. Maybe if I’d realised earlier on in the runtime then this film would have been a tad more enjoyable. Still, can’t beat John Malkovich ranting and raving for an hour and a half now can you?

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Ewan Gleadow
I've been writing for various different places for roughly four or five years now. Currently focusing my writing on film reviews, politics and occasional game reviews. Hopefully you enjoy my work, be sure to contact me if you have any criticisms or praise.

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