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Burn After Reading

Intelligence is Relative 

Year: 2008 
Running Time:
Aspect Ratio: Unknown 
Certificate: BBFC 15 Cert – Not suitable for under 15s 
Subtitles: This film is not expected to be subtitled, though this cannot be guaranteed. 
Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen 
Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand  
An image from Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading is the product of Oscar winners. Still riding on the hype generated from broody No Country For Old Men (2007), the Coen Brothers make it perfectly clear that they have no intention of letting their game slip. They’ve even managed to squeeze the premier of Hollywood’s clout into their newest venture, enlisting old pal Clooney and initiating Pitt into their comedy ensemble.

Burn After Reading is a well-polished spy comedy. It is big in attitude, endearing, funny and has a few killer blows up its sleeve – which are untimely and shocking. It is set in Washington DC where Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is a superannuated CIA analyst writing his memoirs. A disc containing his rather alarming background falls out of a bag in a gym and lands in the hands of the gym’s rather gormless employees, Chad (Pitt) and cosmetic surgery obsessed, Linda (McDormand), who instantly resort to blackmailing Cox. Whilst Linda scours Internet dating sites she starts up relations with serial adulterer Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) who is already having an affair with Cox’s wife (Swinton), who is investigating her husband’s shifty financial affairs. Will Cox get his disc back? Will Linda get the cosmetic enhancement she dreams of? Will adulterer Harry get his comeuppance?

The intricate plot is developed well and the Coens manage to balance comedic shenanigans with backstabbing revenge. Pitt and McDormand get most of the funny lines whilst Malkovich delivers powerful, sometimes macabre scenes that comprise the backbone of the film. Clooney reminds us why he’s on the Hollywood A-list, while the Coens continue to deliver their ever-evolving cinema.

Victoria Galloway

At the CIA headquarters, Osbourne (John Malkovich) arrives at a top-secret meeting only to find that he is getting the sack. Osborne doesn't take the news well and returns to work on his memoirs - and more so his drinking. His wife is shocked but not especially disappointed as she is already well into an illicit affair with Harry (George Clooney), a married federal marshal, and has plans to leave Osborne for Harry. Seemingly worlds apart, fitness centre employee Linda (Frances McDormand) is far too obsessed with a plan for extensive cosmetic surgery to concentrate on her work, which she confides to her can-do-all colleague Chad (Brad Pitt). When a disc containing material for the CIA analyst's memoirs accidentally falls into the hands of Linda and Chad, the duo are intent on exploiting their find. Events start from here to spiral out of everyone's control, in a cascading sequence of intriguingly hilarious encounters.

The Coen Brothers do a superb job of directing, but it is the acting from this star-studded cast that makes the film intriguing - Pitt and McDormand steal the show in practically each scene that they're in. If you liked the previous Coen brother comedies or just like dark humour, you'll love this film – it certainly ranks amongst the best comedies of the year.

Orville D'Silva

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Screenings of this film:

2008/2009 Summer Term (35mm)
2008/2009 Summer Term (35mm)