I can imagine that after making the incredibly depressing yet incredibly awesome No County For Old Men, the Coen Brothers looked at their latest crime-caper-gone-awry and said, “Oh it’s good to laugh again.” And laugh we did. Burn After Reading isn’t short on funny, even though it lacks some of the cohesion of other Coen movies like O’ Brother Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski.
Osbourne Cox is a CIA analyst who quits the Agency after being confronted by his boss about his drinking problem. His wife, Katie, is having an affair and talking to a lawyer about a divorce. At the lawyer’s request, Katie puts all of Osbourne’s financial records on CD, only to lose it at the gym. The disc is found by two employees, Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke, who want to use the information to blackmail Osbourne. I don’t know about you, but I bet things don’t work out just like they planned! (Actually I know it doesn’t because I’ve seen the movie.)
What worked. The Coen Brothers are A-list filmmakers, and their movies attract A-list talent. Burn is no exception. Everyone here is at the top of their game. John Malkovich as Tourette’s poster child Osbourne and Brad Pitt as the bumbling Chad deliver the biggest laughs of the entire movie. The always funny J.K. Simmons (who’s great in anything he does, whether he’s barking out orders at the Daily Bugle, or burning swastikas into Beecher’s ass) bows in a hilarious performance as a clueless CIA bigwig. And George Clooney makes men everywhere question their own sexuality.
What didn’t work. There are epic movies, like The Lord of the Rings. There are solid movies, like 3:10 to Yuma. And then there are movies that, for one reason or another, feel like extended television episodes. Burn moves along at a brisk 95 minutes. And while it’s not a direct knock against it, I’ve found that it can be hard to get invested in movies that are too short. The Coens are masters at finding humor in dark situations, and filling their movie with unexpected twists. Burn is no different, but a few unexpected twists may be a little too much for some people.
This was a good movie, and easily one of the summer’s (we’ll lump it in) best comedies, but I can easily think of four or five Coen movies that top it. I give it a B. Take your girlfriend out to see it. Just don’t tell her about all the profanity.