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Burn After Reading Review

October 9, 2008
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<!– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } — <!– @page { size: 8.5in 11in; margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } — What the hell?

Since the beginning of time, man has been confused. Why does the sun come up? Why does intoxication feel so good? Did that guy seriously post a picture of a fat guy in a tutu with a trombone on the Internet? Although the issues have always changed, and the rise of the Internet has increased the amount of confusion present, the phrase that you’ll most likely use when you learn that not only is your wife divorcing you, but she’s also a three-headed chicken creature hailing from the Betelgeuse star system, has not: “What The Hell?”

You wouldn’t think a movie could perfectly encapsulate an entire meme, but you’re wrong. Burn After Reading does just that, marvelously. The Coen Brothers, who brought us No Country For Old Men, clearly spent enough time on Livejournal, MySpace, and 4chan, because they could not have done better if they brought out Sigourney Weaver and announced that she is actually a man. Which might actually have a grain of truth to it.

Introducing the cast may explain a bit of the movie. John Malkovich plays an arrogant, retired CIA officer who thinks everyone around him is an idiot. For once, this actually works, because everybody else is. Tilda Swinton plays his wife, and by “wife”, I mean “jerk”. There is no other way to describe her cold, domineering, self-centered, egotistical character. The editors at Webster’s have assured me that the next edition will have her picture instead of text, right underneath the female Labrador. George Clooney plays a marshal who also happens to be a suave playboy that does every woman in DC before the movie is over. Brad Pitt plays himself, and by that I mean he plays an idiot. Frances McDormand plays his coworker, a woman who is only an iota more intelligent and wants seventeen cosmetic surgeries so she can get a hot man for herself, yet completely ignores the one nice guy in the film who actually likes her, her boss, played by Richard Jenkins.

The movie begins with Malkovich getting reassigned because of a drinking problem, and instead of taking it gracefully, he loudly bellows the adult version of the famous phrase, then throws a temper tantrum and quits. Meanwhile, his wife is cheating on him with George Clooney. She sees a divorce lawyer, who tells her to get all the financial information so they can make a case. She does while Malkovich is out getting drunk at a class reunion, but the disk she put the data on ends up at the gym where Pitt and McDormand work. They figure its highly sensitive national security-data (when its just financials and Malkovich’s horror novel—I mean memoir) and try to be “good Samaritans” and give it back in exchange for a reward, but being idiots, they end up blackmailing him instead. Meanwhile, while his wife is out of town, Clooney gets tailed by a spook and adopts McDormand as his 256th mistress. What ensues is a hilarious yet dark romp through their personal lives and the spy world, as Pitt and McDormand try to sell the disk to the Russians, Clooney gets more paranoid, Malkovich goes psycho, and the only sympathetic person in the entire film ends up dead. As the CIA monitors these events, they give the reports to J.K. Simmons (who plays Chief Pope on TNT’s The Closer.) Simmons’ character is the audience surrogate—he is you, sitting in the movie, saying “What the hell?” over and over again. At the end of the movie, everyone is either divorced, dead, or has fled the country, except for Simmons, who, like you, is still wondering just what the hell actually happened.

Burn After Reading is, I dare say, somewhat literary compared to most Hollywood films, and yet I liked it. It’s a movie about stupidity, ambition, stupidity, love, stupidity, marriage, stupidity, bureaucracy, stupidity, paranoia, stupidity, sex, stupidity, and lastly, more stupidity. It’s an intelligent movie about stupid people. Even though everything clicks together to advance the plot, nothing really makes sense, and yet this absurdist comedy is still very enjoyable. I really have only two things I dislike and one that creeps me out—and no, for once, I don’t mean Malkovich. The first bad thing is that they really say the f-word too much. They said it too much in Doom, and look how that bombed. The word is like salt—too much and it ruins the flavor. The other bad thing is that the scene Malkovich kills the only actual good guy was a bit excessive, in my opinion. Lots of gore in broad daylight does not a good movie make. The creepy thing was the sex toy that George Clooney built for his wife. I’m not going to describe it. It was that creepy. It’s nice that he thinks about her while he’s out doing the city, but it’s still creepy.

All in all, should you watch this movie? Well, if you enjoy absurdism and laughing at stupid people, then by all means, go watch this. It’s really not bad, but don’t expect to understand much. Expect copious amounts of “What the hell?” instead.

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