The Coen Brothers are known for making madcap comedies full of self-defeating characters and packed with jabs at the world that they, and we, inhabit. In that regard, Burn After Reading is among their craftiest works.
And yet, while the film became their third biggest box office earner following its release on September 12, 2008, it isn’t nearly as fondly remembered as the likes of The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, or Fargo. It resonated with critics (78% on the Tomatometer) and carries an Audience Score of 64%, but in most assessments of the Coen Bros. canon, it sits firmly in the middle – if not at the very bottom.
The film has a very Coens-y premise: Gym associates discover a CD containing secret government documents, which they use to try to nab a reward from the CIA; when that doesn’t work, they go to the Russians. What they don’t know is that the CD was planted by a CIA officer’s vengeful wife, and that they have inadvertently lit the fuse on a powder keg of affairs and covert operations. Hijinks ensue. Lots and lots of hijinks.
After more than a decade of sitting in the under-appreciated drawer, we think it’s time people pulled it out, brushed the dust off, and started holding this should-be Coen Bros. classic in higher regard. Here’s why.
No character better embodies the vibe and subversive smarts of Burn After Reading than Brad Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer, an airhead gym trainer whose douchebro swagger was immortalized from the very first trailer for the film (you’ll recall his exuberant, fist-pumping treadmill dance). Chad’s short attention span and surface-level interactions make him a big dumb Labrador with impeccably conditioned hair. He brings that same goofiness to the world of covert affairs, attempting to sell CIA documents using all he knows: spy tropes he’s seen on TV – if he remembers them well enough.
Pitt played him like kazoo, all over-the-top guffaws, oblivious smirks, and vacant stares. Which was totally against type, at least for Pitt at the time. This was ’00s Brad, not early ’90s surfer Brad – slick and suave in Ocean’s Eleven, rugged cowboy in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In Reading, Brad Pitt broke brand to spoof Brad Pitt.
Who could forget Frances McDormand’s legendary Oscar-winning turn as Marge Gunderson in Fargo? McDormand won our hearts with the wholesome-and-competent cop just so she could trample them as Linda Litzke in Burn After Reading.
The obsessive Litzke is hellbent on getting cosmetic surgery so she can meet – and keep – the guy of her dreams. Where Marge was patient and kind, Litzke is anything but, her eyes sharp and judgmental, her laughter uncaring, her every gesture quick, rigid and controlled. She’s cutthroat, insipid, egotistical, and that’s just the start of why we love to hate her (and it’s mostly love). Just like her boss, Richard Jenkins as Ted Treffon.
More than one character in Burn After Reading uses the word “clusterf–k” to describe the situation they find themselves in, and it’s a perfect way to describe the film itself, a comedy of errors begetting errors begetting errors. What was your favorite f—k up in the cluster? John Malkovich’s pretentious Osbourne Cox, a notoriously short-fused CIA agent, deluding himself into thinking people care about his hackneyed memoir? Chad Feldheimer learning why you should never hide in a CIA agent’s closet? Or something else?
Burn After Reading delivers on a ton of comedy levels – wordplay, non sequiturs, slapstick, and more. Perhaps the best element of all is U.S. Marshall Harry Pfarrer’s (George Clooney) mysterious invention. Just as he gets wind of the cloak-and-dagger affair, he begins building something in his garage, always keeping it hidden from his wife, always under a tarp. When he finally reveals it to Linda, and to us, we are treated to a glorious contraption made of shining steel, luxurious leather… and a dildo.
And that sex machine winds up being emblematic of the whole movie.
At the Coens’ request, composer Carter Burwell created a bombastic, percussive score that was “something sounding important but absolutely meaningless,” which fit the bill for the introduction and revelation of Harry’s sex machine. In the same way, the movie’s spy caper is a mysterious, convoluted nothing-burger by design: Its characters are vapid, self-serving idiots, despite their delusions of grandeur, and its central concern is a stack of CIA documents that are nothing more than a character’s disjointed autobiography.
The Coens let the air out of the spycraft movie, one of Hollywood’s oldest and most frequently revisited genres. Their film suggests that movie government agents rarely know what’s going on, generally overreact to crises, and tend to squabble with other agencies – and maybe not just movie government agents.
Every Coen Bros. movie is a statement on the world and upon itself. The Big Lebowski subtly meditates on the Bush administration. Hail, Caesar! asks if Hollywood success is really worth the effort. Burn After Reading, as much as any of their other works, and maybe more so, reflects on the Coen Bros. themselves as storytellers.
Consider that Burn After Reading is populated by characters who are spoofs or inversions of the actors who play them: Pitt as the dumb douche Chad, McDormand as driven and tough, Clooney as a vapid goof, and – again – Malkovich as a storyteller with nothing to say. And then consider that the film is an almost-spoof of the Coen Bros. body of work – ordinary people caught up in unordinary dealings.
“Who’d want to hear your story?!” Tilda Swinton’s Katie Cox asks Osbourne, her husband, at one point. It’s a question many storytellers ask themselves, and every Burn After Reading character deludes themselves into thinking the answer is “everyone,” when everything is ultimately “utterly meaningless.” You can almost hear the brothers Coen asking us to consider whether there is meaning in the movie itself, and the movies they made before it. And then asking us as follow-up: If there isn’t meaning in the work, does that make them necessarily meaningless?
Which is the big takeaway from the film. Recall the movie’s last few lines: “What did we learn? …I guess we learned not to do it again.” The characters may have taken the lesson to heart – we await any kind of sequel – but to our delight, the Coen Bros. did not.
Burn After Reading was released September 12, 2008