Do you like shenanigans?

My main impression after seeing Burn After Reading was simply that there’s nothing wrong with it. The opening scene pulls you right in, the casting is wonderful, the dialogue clever, the plot just complicated enough to make you really pay attention but not so complicated that you ever feel confused. There are two particular moments of genuine, startling surprise—one tragic and one comic—that put the Coen brothers’ stamp of “random but genius absurdity” onto the work. There’s nothing I would really change about it.

Which isn’t to say that the film will storm its way onto best-of lists everywhere, or that it is even among the top five best Coen brothers films. It’s a lark. A tightly edited (96 minutes), perfectly-proportioned, hint-of-a-dark-side lark, but a lark nonetheless. The great thing about a movie like this is that while I wouldn’t be horrified if people don’t see it (“What do you mean you never saw No Country for Old Men, I can’t speak to you again until you do” etc etc), I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to just about anybody.

Our cast of characters consists of the following delightful members: Brad Pitt as a clueless personal trainer, Frances McDormand as his hopelessly naïve but lovable co-worker, Richard Jenkins as their timid boss, George Clooney as a buffoon who often cheats on his wife, Tilda Swinton as the cold woman who is Clooney’s current affair, John Malkovich as Swinton’s C.I.A. analyst husband, David Rasche as the agent trying to sort out the mess these people make, and J.K. Simmons as that agent’s thoroughly confused boss. We can sum up thusly: pretty much the best cast ever.

The plot starts off simply enough, with Pitt and McDormand’s characters fascinated by a disc they find that contains information from Malkovich’s computer. They decide to try their hand at a little blackmail. It’d be unnecessary to describe any of the twists and turns that occur after that, but they are many and they are just unpredictable enough. Some moments you will see coming, but then the way the moment plays out surprises. There are things that take place off-screen that other filmmakers might have made into five-minute long scenes. This type of execution is one of the main reasons why Coen brothers movies are always worth re-watching. This one won’t dominate the Oscars (though I will lead the campaign for McDormand’s best supporting actress nomination), but it deserves plenty of respect anyway.

In conclusion, you should see this movie because you will like it.

But oh—I just thought of one thing I might change. I’d throw in a cameo from Steve Buscemi. Just because you can never get enough of those.

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Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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