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Burn After Reading

There is a thing in Hollywood called a MacGuffin.   Hitchcock named it this, but it’s been in movies for as long as there have been movies.   In short, it’s the thing that everyone wants; it motivates the characters and advances the plot.  It’s the  Maltese Falcon, the Allspark in Transformers, the glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction,  the letters of transit in Casablanca.    In “Burn After Reading,”  it’s a CD containing encrypted files, except…it isn’t.    As soon as the MacGuffin is revealed, we, in the audience know it’s worthless, and before the movie is half over, the characters know it’s worthless as well.   And yet they keep going as if it mattered.   This, I suppose, is the Coen brothers’ MacGuffin Twist.    I’m not sure what I think of it.

“Burn After Reading” stars John Malkovich as an ex-CIA analyst, who continues to prove my theory that this actor is incapable of playing normal, well-adjusted people.    His ice queen wife is Tilda Swinton, who is having an affair with George Clooney.  Their scenes here couldn’t help but remind me of their scenes in “Michael Clayton,” (“I’m not the guy you kill!”)  a far superior movie.  Clooney cruises the internet for chicks, where he picks up Frances McDormand, who is trying to find a way to fund extensive plastic surgery (“I think this body has taken me about as far as it’s going to.”)  McDormand works at a gym with a gum-chewing, Jamba-Juice slurping Brad Pitt, and Richard Harris, who is secretly in love with McDormand, pre-surgery body notwithstanding.    Pitt finds a CD with “serious &*%*” on it in the locker room, which belongs to Malkovich.  And the circle is complete.

The actors are clearly having fun; they play their roles broadly, like this is an extended Saturday Night Live sketch.  If only watching them were as much fun.   Pitt is entertaining, for certain, and again I’m reminded what range and talent this oft-overlooked actor has.   But I’ve never really enjoyed George Clooney’s idiot character (this, according to the Coens, is the third in their “idiot trilogy,” all starring Clooney) and the rest….well, there’s a reason SNL sketches are only five minutes long.  As their lunacy descends into pure idiocy and then pointlessness, it’s hard to keep caring, or keep laughing.   And then there’s the violence, which almost rewards the viewer for not caring about the characters.   Not sure how that works, either.

Joel and Ethan Coen oft-praised for so much of their craft, are oft criticized for not respecting their characters.   I’d never given this criticism much credence before, because I have deeply enjoyed so many of their movies.   But this time, it’s crystal clear.   Everyone in this movie is a desperate idiot, and we’re supposed to laugh at them, even at their grisly and shocking deaths (the violence is “Burn After Reading” is sudden and shocking.)   I think this is supposed to be a Washington, DC version of “Fargo,” which was mean and nasty and yet, somehow, funny as well.   Maybe it was Steve Buscemi.   Maybe it’s that DC is harder to lampoon than North Dakota, which in itself perhaps reveals our prejudices about country folk and city folk.   Whatever it is, “Burn After Reading” is only funny in parts, and the rest of the time is bizarre, unsettling, and harsh.


  • if you’d rather laugh at people than with them.
  • For Brad Pitt’s performance.  Suggested double feature: “Jesse James” and then this.
  • If “Fargo” is your favorite movie.
  • If If you just can’t get comedy dark and savage enough.

Not Recommended

  • if you’re looking for another “No Country for Old Men,” or another “O Brother Where Art Thou.”
  • If you’re at all bothered by sudden, squeamish violence.
  • If you’d rather see characters you can like and identify with.
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2 Responses

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  1. Nice blog, Willie!

    I agree the violence was unnecessary. But the fact that the characters “keep going” after they find out the CD is worthless was necessary. Was pointlessness not the point here? How many utterly worthless things do people spend their lives doing, worrying about, and going after? You may not have cared for or liked the characters, but don’t you pity them?

    I loved Brad’s performance in this–it really seemed like he was having fun with it. I just so happened to watch The Assassination of Jesse James a few days after I saw this movie. It makes a great contrast!

  2. gonnawatchit said

    I see that it’s necessary. I just don’t see that it’s funny. And I think you have to like someone, at least a little bit, to pity them at all.

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