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Burn After Reading Boasts Big Laughs and Moral Truths

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Dec 24, 2008
<i>Burn After Reading</i> Boasts Big Laughs and Moral Truths

DVD Release Date:  December 21, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  September 12, 2008
Rating:  R (for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence.)
Genre:  Comedy-Drama
Run Time:  96 min
Directors:  Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Cast:  George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

The Human Creature is a funny thing sometimes, especially when it unwittingly orchestrates its own destruction.  Temptation quickly leads to willful ignorance, willful ignorance inevitably leads to really stupid decisions, and on that fast slippery slope is where the Coen Brothers have found comedy throughout their career. 

It’s also where they’ve made their most pointed indictments about the human condition—greed especially—and Burn After Reading is another brilliant entry into their canon of dark morality tales.

This also marks the Coens’ most blatant attempt at parody as Burn After Reading is a send-up of modern Oscar-bait conspiracy thrillers like Michael Clayton and Syriana.  The fact that George Clooney (the star of both those films, and a Coen vet) is willing to mock the genre that gave him serious acting cred along with Oscar gold speaks well of his own ego (and lack thereof), and what makes him a perfect addition to this all-star ensemble.

After an opening credit sequence that feels pulled from the Bourne franchise, we’re introduced to CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) at the moment of his firing.  Driven by both bitterness and an over-inflated sense of self, Cox decides to dish details in a memoir (or, as he pretentiously pronounces it, “a mem-wah”).  This simple decision becomes the catalyst that brings various unrelated parties together in a high stakes game of international intrigue in which no one really knows what game’s being played, who’s playing it, or that the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they assume.

The players include Washington D.C. insiders like Osbourne, his uptight and domineering wife Katie (Tilda Swinton, also from Michael Clayton), and U.S. Federal Marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) who is, primarily, a serial philanderer.  Then there’s also Linda Litzke and Chad Feldheimer (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt), trainers at the Hardbodies Fitness Center who have stumbled upon a computer disc that apparently contains sensitive government secrets—a disc that leads back to Osbourne.  

What unfolds is far too complex to summarize here (though easy to follow)—but what makes the story fascinating isn’t just the complications themselves but rather the desperate acts that fuel them.  Whenever wisdom and restraint are called for, greed, vice and selfishness rule out.  Each character chooses to exploit situations for personal gain, going to illegal (and potentially deadly) lengths merely for the hope of a moderate pay off.  People get in over their heads, and the consequences they reap are more severe than they could’ve imagined.

A dark comedy that revels in everything the Coens do best, there are big laughs to be had as the entire cast embraces the absurdity of the material—Clooney and Pitt especially, who relish their roles (Pitt’s simpleminded trainer, for example, is always hydrating) and are clearly having a blast.  But Burn After Reading juxtaposes broad screwball strokes against a real, building tension and occasional bursts of graphic violence.  Deeper emotional moments also resonate, particularly as McDormand’s Linda struggles to fill an emotional/relational void through shallow outlets even as her boss (Richard Jenkins) quietly pines for her affection.

Be aware that Burn After Reading does indeed earn its R rating.  Malkovich and Pitt are prone to profane sprees (Malkovich with rage, Pitt with casual cluelessness), graphic violence often comes unexpectedly, and the sexual peccadilloes of Clooney’s Harry drive him to construct what can only be described as a homemade sex machine.  Though a simple contraption that’s never used and only revealed in one scene, the nature of it will certainly offend those who don’t find it funny (though it’s played for laughs, not titillation), especially given the “toy” that serves as the primary instrument of the device.  But again, these are all traits of empty, desperate people whose moral centers have gone corrupt, and the absurdity lies in how absolutely blind they are to that fact. 

Near the end, after events have spiraled completely out of control, a CIA director (whose only stress relief comes from the knowledge that people have died without a trace) asks a fellow officer “What did we learn here?”  Their answer:  “Not to do it again.”  That’s a plain-spoken way of delivering the film’s key themes:  Be humble.  Stop flirting with temptation.  You can’t control events because you can’t predict consequences, and be careful of every decision you make before you find that each one was digging your own grave.  That the film elicits big laughs on the path to contemplating those truths makes it truly Coen-esque.


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Alcohol consumption is present, but not to any great degree.
  • Language/Profanity:  All levels of profanity used throughout, especially by John Malkovich and Brad Pitt.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A brief bedroom sex scene, though it excludes nudity.  Close-ups of Frances McDormand’s body during visit with cosmetic surgeon, but nothing offensive or revealing.  The one offensive sexual element is the simple homemade “sex machine” made by Clooney’s character, and it utilizes a device commonly found in adult-oriented stores.  It’s never used, just seen (in one scene).
  • Violence/Other:  Though violence isn’t constant throughout, it does become graphic.  Point-blank/bloody shootings occur, as does an ax attack late in the film.  Although seen at a distance and only briefly, the attack is cold and brutal.  Also, the most extreme acts of violence happen unexpectedly, which make them all the more shocking.


Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of  the "Steelehouse Podcast,” along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit or click here.  You can also subscribe to the "Steelehouse Podcast” through iTunes.