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"Burn After Reading"

Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring John Malkovich, George Clooney, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt.
Release Year:  2008
Review Date:  9/14/08


In-between outdoor activities in our neighborhood, we decided to check out the new Coen Brothers flick "Burn After Reading."  My fiancée Meg noted--ominously, in fact--that this movie had been getting "mixed" reviews (she knows I don't read them), so we went into this movie hoping for the best.

Let's just say that no one will be placing this flick atop the Coen Brothers' canon of films, if they know anything about movies.

I'm still stuck trying to figure out why "Burn After Reading" is so uneven and eventually worthless; the film is described by the directors themselves as a "Washington, D.C. spy caper" (we watched the HBO "making of" special yesterday) and I agree, in that the film IS based in Washington, D.C.  John Malkovich plays a long-time CIA analyst who is fired when the film opens; in deciding what to do with his life, he decides--against the advice of his cheating wife Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton)--to write a memoir of his government adventures.  This memoir is what drives the rest of the film, as notes of the memoir somehow fall into the hands of a knuckleheaded fitness club employee (Brad Pitt) and his co-worker Linda (Frances McDormand, the wife of Joel Coen), who demand a ransom from the CIA guy in exchange for the return of these notes.  Add Katie's lover Harry (George Clooney) to the mix and you've got plenty of people to keep up with...

...but, these characters are only one-note quirky, so the lack of depth of all of these characters makes them hard to get into, even if they are occasionally amusing in their pursuit of whatever each person is after.  "Burn After Reading" made me laugh a couple of times, and chuckle many other times...and, as Meg mentioned later, I was one of the few people doing any laughing.  I think one of the major pluses of this film, for me at least, was that the film is set here in Washington, so while I can't confirm that the film was shot here, the lingo and some of the passing shots of the city made me all warm inside, you know?  Pitt's performance is mostly funny, Richard Jenkins is great as the boss at the fitness center, and the guys playing government types will always get laughs.

But, typical Coen Brothers-like violence appears in this film, and that will turn off a few people; stretches of scenes that go nowhere or remind us of each person's "background" (right, Harry likes to go for a run; right, Linda needs surgery) fill up a large majority of the film's short 90-minute running time.  At the end of the day, "Burn After Reading" falls into the pipe of Coen Brothers mediocrity shared by movies like "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers"'s just okay, and you probably won't need to see it ever again.

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09