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Coens' cynical spy spoof


Burn After Reading: 96 minutes. Rated: MA. Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Starring: Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, J. K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins

Burn After Reading movie posterIt can be hard to spot the villain in a Coen Brothers movie. In No Country For Old Men, Javier Bardem's ruthless bounty hunter was conspicuously evil; less obvious were the self-serving tendencies of his sullen quarry, the archetypal cowboy played by Josh Brolin, whose theft of a sack of drug money provoked the bloody pursuit.

The Coens' latest offering, the spy comedy Burn After Reading, is not as bleak as No Country For Old Men. But it does jostle with unlikeable characters, a fact that tends to blur the lines of responsibility for its tragic outcomes.

Like No Country For Old Men (and, for that matter, the Coens' other masterpiece, Fargo), Burn After Reading chronicles the fatal fallout that takes place due to an inept scheme executed by an ostensibly decent human being. In this case the instigator of the scam is endearingly goofy gym employee Linda Litzke (McDormand).

Middle-aged, single, and surrounded daily by the gym's fit clients, Linda dreams of being able to afford the cosmetic surgery that she believes will give her body, and therefore her life, perfection. When her incessantly upbeat associate Chad (a hilarious Pitt) discovers that a disk found on the gym floor contains classified CIA information, she sees her chance, and enlists Chad's help to blackmail the disk's owner.

Said owner is one Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), an alcoholic ex-CIA analyst with a monstrous ego and a grudge to match. He's no pushover, and what Linda envisioned as a straightforward scam gets complicated.

She fails, for example, to account for the fact that the information on the disk might not be as valuable as she imagined. She also doesn't plan for the presence in Cox's world of womanising and increasingly paranoid treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a man with an itchy trigger finger, who has been sleeping with Cox's ill-tempered wife Katie (Swinton) and, coincidentally, is the same Harry that Linda recently hooked up with via an internet dating site.

Convoluted, yes, and, like any good spy thriller, each convolution exacerbates the layers of intrigue. But it's all very farcical, closer in tone to other Coen comedies such as The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? than Fargo or Miller's Crossing. Yet the dire consequences of Linda and Chad's ill-fated espionage pack a punch, even amid the dark absurdity.

Burn After Reading may not be bleak, but it is cynical about the human potential for reckless self-interest. It is preoccupied with issues of sexual identity and fidelity, which bear disproportionately on the events. Linda's desire for a perfect body is motivated by her desire for a perfect man. She's oblivious to the awkward advances of her gentle employer, Ted (Jenkins). She mistakes Harry for Mr Right, and is as blind to his flaws as Katie is.

Harry's own sense of self-worth is so bound up with sex that he's been secretly building an elaborate masturbation device, intended as a grotesquely misguided gift for his wife.

The film is equally cynical about soulless bureaucracy. Its most hilarious, defining moments belong to Simmons as the CIA superior who, baffled by the strange and fatal reports surrounding the blackmail attempt against their former agent Cox, revels in blithely sweeping the whole mess under the rug.

The loss of innocent lives is no concern of his, as long as it doesn't disrupt business as usual.

Got a favourite Coen Brothers movie? Use the Comment form below to tell us which one, and why. 
Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue. He is a contributor to the Black Box e-anthology. Email Tim

Topic tags: burn after reading, coen, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney



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Existing comments

I guess Fargo is the undisputed Coen masterpiece. I've always had a soft spot for Miller's Crossing. The Man Who Wasn't There (Coen noir) was great. And I'll confess that I thoroughly enjoyed their rom-com Intolerable Cruelty, even though it took me a couple of viewings to get into it.

Can't pick a favourite, instead, here's a few favourite moments from Coen Brothers films:

5. An asthmatic assassin (Irwin Keyes) confuses his inhaler with his gun in Intolerable Cruelty.

4. Walter (John Goodman) misjudges the wind direction when he attempts to scatter Donny's ashes into the ocean (The Big Lebowski).

3. Board members of Hudsucker Industries bicker over whether or not the mezzanine in their building counts as a floor (The Hudsucker Proxy).

2. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the monologue that makes sense of the bewildering anticlimax in No Country For Old Men.

1. In Miller's Crossing, Irish mobster Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) faces having to prove his worth to a rival gang by executing the brother of the woman he loves. Tom's conscience grapples with pragmatism in the face of some first class grovelling from John Turturro.

Charles Boy | 23 October 2008  

I was expecting this film to be more 'laugh out loud' funny, like The Big Lebowski. But it was a lot darker than that. The laughs are there, but the Coens play with the audience's expectations. That said, like any Coen film, it's a worthwhile watch.

My favourite Coen Brothers film is still The Big Lebowski.

"This is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules."

Joseph Vine | 23 October 2008  

No country for old men is superb, but I was bored and disappointed with Burn after reading - cliched spy jokes and marital infidelity and incompetence on a grand scale. Brad Pitt's campy caricature as Chad the gym-bunny air-head was great, however, and gave a smile or three.

Brian | 23 October 2008  

I enjoyed your review of Burn after Reading - I saw it on the weekend and as with most Coen Bros. movies, enjoyed it. Your comments resonated with some of my impressions.

Kate | 23 October 2008  

It has to be Frances McDormand in Fargo as the hugely pregnant, stolidly tenacious police officer. The bleak Nebraskan(?) landscape where the loot is buried and lost under metres of winter snow and Frances' final words to the surviving crook, "and all this for a little bita money!"

Toni McManus | 24 October 2008  

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