Although far from the Coen brother’s best film, Burn After Reading (2008) nonetheless has quite a bit of mischievous fun about it.
With its star-studded cast, it was an unsurprising hit. And 14 years after its release, revisiting the film you find a great sense of fun and a caper that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Adults and Stupidity in Burn After Reading
The Coen brothers have a habit of making a serious drama/black comedy, following by making a sort of goofball film.
Fargo (1996) was followed by The Big Lebowski (1998). And after No County For Old Men (2007), they ran with Burn After reading.
Officially, it’s classed as a black comedy spy film. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the script, directed, and produced it.
The plot follows the lives of various individuals in New York. In short:
- CIA analyst, and alcoholic in denial, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich).
- Robotic paediatrician Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), Osbourne’s wife.
- Gym employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand).
- Fellow gym employee, and total airhead, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt).
- US Marshal, and smarmy womaniser, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).
Osbourne Cox is let go from his job and plans to write a memoir as a new job.
That’s where the story kicks in, as he accidentally leaves a CD containing his memoir at Hardbodies gym. That’s where Linda and her friend Chad work.
She’s worried about ageing, cellulite, and wants (what she views as) life-changing plastic surgery. The pair view the memoir as an opportunity to blackmail Cox, get some money, and fund Linda’s cosmetic changes.
Chad pushes on with the plot with a sense of mischievousness. But he also wants to help his friend out.
They contact Osbourne Cox, whose brewing alcoholism is causing him to increasingly suffer from anger management issues (much to his ongoing denial).
Worth highlighting we’re adding a lot of Brad Pitt’s scenes here, as he’s genuinely a lot of fun in the movie. His character is loveable.
He eventually confronts Cox in a blackmail attempt, which results in fisticuffs. Plus, insights into Chad’s preference for gym bicycles (“You think that’s a Schwinn!”).
Brad Pitt clearly has fun with his character, the upbeat but airheaded Chad Feldheimer. We think Pitt deserves credit in his career for avoiding more tedious handsome leading man roles.
But as Chad, this is kind of playing on the stereotype of good looks equals dumb. The idea of someone pretty, but utterly idiotic.
That is sort of the whole black comedy schitck of Burn After Reading.
You’ve got all these good looking, successful people doing their jobs. Most of them are seriously flawed in one way or another. And all of them behave in an increasingly idiotic way, backed up by ego and entitlement.
Take George Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer. He’s a serial womaniser who’s perfected his routine, using online dating services to sleep around behind his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel).
He simultaneously dates Katie Cox (Swinton), Osbourne Cox’s cold and calculating wife, and then the hapless Linda Litzke. Around those two he also has various one night stands.
Burn After Reading may be a goofball comedy at its heart, but these are casual and fun nods towards society’s flaws.
The handsome and superficially charming Harry Pfarrer wows women with his looks, but becomes increasingly paranoid as the film progresses. His wife then levels divorce papers at him.
He’s left as a sobbing wreck in the street.
Out of this bunch of self-absorbed individuals, Linda Litzke is the one you root for.
Now, Linda is naïve. But she’s also lovable and vulnerable and worried about her butt getting a bit on the loose side. When she dates Pfarrer, he even arrogantly tells her she could do with the surgery.
Conclusions!? Whilst the Coen brothers aimed to pen a spy film, it plays out more like a fanciful soap opera with a series of absurd relationship failures.
And it’s more of a exaggerated take on common personality flaws, played out for comedic effect. Is that a problem? No, we think it works well!
It’s not supposed to be taken seriously. The result is an accessible, enjoyable romp you can stick on and not think too hard about.
In the Coen brother’s canon of films it ranks towards the bottom. But then those boys know how to make incredibly good films! Even if it’s far from their best work, there are still plenty of stellar moments to be found.
Plus, you’ll learn a lot about gym equipment. Bonus!
Burn After Reading’s Production Notes
Burn After Reading was a hit. Off its $37 million budget, it went on to rake in a $163.7 million box office return.
Unlike many of their other films, though, there were no Oscar nominations this time.
The Coen brothers wrote the screenplay as they hadn’t worked on a spy film before. But later admitted it’s more of a character study type of film than anything else. Which is correct.
They also indicated it wasn’t a satire on the American government.
They did, however, write the roles with the main actors in mind (other than with Tilda Swinton). Brad Pitt’s character was inspired by a dodgy bit of hair dye he’d had forced on him when filming a commercial.
They thought that was funny, so twisted it into Pitt’s character.
Filming began in August 2007 and took place in Brooklyn Heights, an upmarket residential neighbourhood in New York. This location was chosen primarily as the Coen brothers wanted to film in New York so they wouldn’t be away from their families.
Filming with Frances McDormand helped there, as she married Joel Coen in 1984.
The legendary John Malkovich had some amusing moments in whilst filming. He was also very complimentary of the directors, stating this.
“The Coens are very delightful. Smart, funny, very specific about what they want but not overly controlling, as some people can be.
In the scene where he’s shouting abuse down the phone to Brad Pitt, Malkovich wasn’t around to do that in normal circumstances.
The Coens needed the recording. Malkovich was staying in a hotel. To solve the matter, he delivered the yelling lines over the phone whilst the directors recorded him. So, some of Malkovich’s neighbours got to enjoy his roaring and abuse at an ungodly hour.
Such is the magic of cinema.
Remember, the next time you’re in a hotel and have a noisy neighbour… it could well be John Malkovich filming for a movie. Don’t complain! Merely enjoy the moment.