Burn After Reading

The Cohens giveth and the Cohens taketh away…

by Adam Miller


BURN AFTER READING is both a send-up of Washington D.C. cloak-and-dagger ethics and middle-class, white, spousal neuroses. Kind of like, OCEANS ELEVEN meets BOURNE ULTIMATUM meets AMERICAN BEAUTY. Maybe? The film’s plot isn’t all that hard to follow, but it’s gags are based upon a series of misunderstandings amplified by the wacky behavior of the film’s characters.

And what characters they are. As with most Cohen brothers films, the characters are amusingly crafted with well written dialogue and top-notch performance from a series of Hollywood stars (including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and John Malkovich). But this brings me to the head of what I don’t particularly like about the Cohen brother’s oeuvre: The bros. love to deliver extremely interesting, perversely likeable characters to an eager audience and then brutally, suddenly, kill them.

I strongly disliked NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN because it struck me as boringly nihilistic. As I watched the movie, I learned quickly not to become engaged with any of the characters as I could predict after the first few killings or so that no one would be around all that long; so why bother? NO COUNTRY was a long, beautifully shot meditation on death and failure. But all I could say at the end was: Yup, death and failure exist and are inevitable… what’s your point?

I liked BURN AFTER READING because it had some solid comedic timing (especially from Frances McDormand), but the basic thrust of the film is the same. At the abrupt end of the film a CIA spook muses something to the effect of: “We need to make sure not to do this again… except we didn’t do anything.” The line, I assume, was supposed to be skewering of D.C. bureaucracy, but it struck me as a more apt description of NO COUNTRY and BURN AFTER READING.

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