Directed by: The Coen Brothers
Premise: Personal trainers at a small independent gym discover a data CD that contains the memoir of a former CIA analyst. Assuming that the information on the disk is sensitive material, the trainers try to ransom it with disastrous results. At the same time, the analyst’s wife is having an affair with a friend who is a former spy.
What Works: The Coen Brothers strength has always been their offbeat but sympathetic characters. Burn After Reading is no exception and it has some solid performances by Frances McDormand as an insecure personal trainer in the midst of a midlife crisis, Brad Pitt as her goofy, ambiguously gay coworker, and George Clooney as a sex addicted former spy. Of these, McDormand gets the best material as her character is pushed to the breaking point. Another hallmark of the Coen Brothers is their ability to reinvent genre. Burn After Reading is an espionage thriller but cast with non-genre character types. The film has some laughs although not the big belly laughs of The Big Lebowski, which remains the Coen’s best work.
What Doesn’t: Although the characters are a lot of fun to watch, Burn After Reading also showcases the Coen’s primary weakness: story structure. The film is too slow to start, many scenes overstay their welcome, going on past the point at which they’ve accomplished their narrative goal, and the ending of the film does not reveal anything or bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not as disastrous as the ending to No Country for Old Men but it’s still a let down.
Bottom Line: Burn After Reading is fun but forgettable, a film that ranks somewhere near the bottom of the Coen Brother’s filmography.
Episode: #206 (September 28, 2008)