Arts and Entertainment

Despite stellar cast, Burn After Reading goes up in flames

By Denebola
Published: September 2008

By Artie Augustyn

The Coen Brothers have not had a particularly good track record with me. Fargo was a little too absurd for my taste, O Brother, Where Art Thou was boring, and I thought No Country For Old Men receiving an Academy Award for ‘ËœBest Film’ was one of the biggest insults to the industry.

It’s obvious that this duo has a devoted following that understands what their films are about, but I’m not among them. So if you are someone who “gets it and loves every film they ever made, then their latest comedy release, Burn After Reading, will be a pleasant adventure for you. For everyone else, newcomers and skeptics alike, stay away – far, far, away.

Burn After Reading is a film about stupid people. Some of them think they are constantly being followed for no reason, others believe enough cosmetic surgery will make them happier, and others are just plain dumb.

The premise is that a CIA worker is laid off and in his distress misplaces classified files that end up in the hands of two employees at HardBodies Fitness Center.

The two workers (played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) attempt to blackmail the CIA agent for some money, but the deal doesn’t go according to plan. After that, it’s hard to tell what exactly happens in the remaining 60 minutes of the movie, but saying “the movie had a bad plotline would suggest that the movie had a plot.

However, this is a comedy, so the fact that it’s missing a gripping plotline isn’t really a big deal. The point of the experience is to make you laugh, but unfortunately Burn After Reading doesn’t even live up to that expectation.

Throughout the entire film there always seems to be an awkward pause after dialogue as if the movie is waiting for the audience to laugh, but no one ever does. All the jokes seem to be referencing some piece of fiction that no one knows exists. The result is a constant feeling of “Oh, I understand that was a joke, but I don’t get it.

I didn’t feel alone because, oddly enough, no one got it. This type of pretension has been prevalent in every other Coen film in existence, so the fault isn’t unique to this release; it’s just “their thing.

I’m not saying that the movie isn’t funny at all’€it has its moments. But the jokes are few and far between, so even if you invest the first 30 minutes waiting for an elaborately set-up scene, the payoff isn’t worth the wait.

As previously mentioned, the film seems to be referencing different aspects of modern culture, but the joke is never told in a satisfying way.

Take, for example, bank account numbers. If you’ve ever had a problem with a bank account and have to call customer service, they always ask if you know the number of your account. Most people don’t remember because it’s a useless nonsensical number that they’ll never need to know except for this one specific exception. Any good writer or comedian could make a funny joke out of that situation.

Burn After Reading’s take is to just have John Malkovich furiously shout the previous three sentences while throwing in the F word whenever possible. It’s like when your unfunny friend tries to retell a Dave Chapelle joke. You know the joke is funny, but the way it’s being presented isn’t entertaining in the slightest. The majority of the jokes in this movie are plagued by this problem.

The film attempts to have some charm with its cast of characters, and that’s really the only thing it has going for it.

There are around six characters who all intertwine and connect to each other in bizarre ways. The star character of this whole cast is Brad Pitt. Pitt plays a workout junkie dimwit whose ambitions are a little too high and who ends up in a lot of trouble.

Pretty much any scene containing his character is guaranteed to be humorous in some way, but his screen time is cut short for plot related reasons halfway through. That’s not to say that the other actors did a terrible job. Every character is played flawlessly by the all-star cast, which is why Burn After Reading is so disappointing.

It’s obvious that there are some genuinely hilarious jokes trapped within the script, but every laugh is countered with an awkward pause. There’s really no enjoyable experience to be had with Burn After Reading.

Whenever a movie makes me feel this level of disappointment and perplexity, I always think, “Maybe it’s just me, and everything is going over my head. This time it wasn’t just me: don’t see this movie.

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