A Review of the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading”

The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading is one of those movies with a farcical and convoluted plot involving idiotic one-up-manship that is essentially an excuse for the filmmakers to poke fun and for their stars to have a great time doing silly bits. Here our zany Brothers return to one of their favorite themes: what happens when simpletons get in way over their heads with a cynical league of morons. Clooney, McDormand, Malcovich, Swinton, and especially Pitt, all whip out their best comedic timing and smarmy facial expressions in this tale of misguided blackmail and bumbling counter-intelligence. Unlike their last two comedic travesties (the barely there Intolerable Cruelty and the wacko Ladykillers), the Coens’ focus is sharper and crueler in this Reading and pointed directly at the government, society, themselves and their audience.

I’ve seen four out of the last five Coen Brothers’ films in crowded theaters where their faithful often laugh out of turn at some of the most unfunny of moments. Burn After Reading has plenty of those moments, as well as some truly funny ones, but one has to wonder why such a talented pair would shoot so low as to desire the elicitation of that “solo” laughter from the loons in the audience that constitute the filmmakers’ personal league of morons. When Clooney’s hardwood floor-loving womanizer unveils his “special project” to McDormand’s plastic-surgery obsessed internet speed dater, it’s a hilarious anti-climax to what had been a long build-up in previous scenes that had the whole crowd groaning and giggling. But isn’t Clooney’s rear-entry sexual-aid device a bit emblematic of how the Coens’ have been treating their audience lately? Later, when Malcovich’s alcoholic ex-CIA analyst literally takes a hatchet to another character, it again elicits uproars, but I couldn’t help but think the Coens’ were symbolically taking out their frustration on the faithful who have been befuddled by their recent offerings. We’re a cynical bunch, and so are the Coens, and whether they see themselves as the simpletons in over their heads and their audience as the league of morons, or vice versa, is never clear.

At least with this slow Burn we don’t have to deal with the pretentious philosophical ruminations of their literary bound and insanely overrated Oscar-winner, No Country for Old Men. While this might not recapture the pure joy of their original dark comedy, Raising Arizona, this star-studded and occasionally hilarious Burn After Reading is the Coen Brothers’ most entertaining film in years, even if we’re all a little more bruised from the wear.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:



Check out my archives for past Coen Brothers’ reviews:

No Country for Old Menhttps://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/a-review-of-the-coen-brothers-no-country-for-old-men/

O Brother, Where Art Thou? :  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0190590/usercomments-616



Are you part of The Coen Brothers’ League of Morons?  Feel free to share your rankings of their films.  Here’s my rankings from best to worst:

Fargo 10/10

Blood Simple 10/10

Miller’s Crossing 9/10

Barton Fink 9/10

Raising Arizona 9/10

O Brother, Where Art Thou? 9/10

The Big Lebowski 8/10

Burn After Reading 7/10

The Man Who Wasn’t There 7/10

No Country for Old Men 6/10

The Hudsucker Proxy 5/10

Intolerable Cruelty 5/10

Ladykillers 5/10


  1. Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he’s not taking himself too seriously… in any case, it’s about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements.

    Pitt’s facial expressions and eyes during the scene where he first meets Malcovich face to face were priceless. I would say he is perhaps a better comic actor than a serious one. I recall his twisted turn in Twelve Monkeys being similarly funny (and dark). –DHS

  2. I’d probably join you in putting Fargo at number one, but how you’ve figured that The Big Lebowski should feature below O Brother I don’t know. I’m also a big fan of ‘Blood Simple’ and I feel that ‘No County for Old Men’ – which evidently you don’t like very much – revisits that earlier film’s bleak, dark world, to equally brilliant effect. I’d like to see ‘Miller’s Crossing’ again – no-one talks about that one anymore…

    Readng your piece on Graham Greene too. I think my favourites is honestly The Human Factor, although I really admire The Power and the Glory.

    James, I really think the music put O Brother Where Art Thou? over the top for me. It also reminded me of The Three Stooges (with a Southern twist) which I loved to watch as a kid, so there was a certain sense of nostalgia it inspired in me. I really think Miller’s Crossing is their most underrated work. Stylistically, it is flawless (much like Blood Simple) and it is unique for them storywise. At some point I plan to rewatch No Country for Old Men to reassess, but I doubt my opinion will change much. It just doesn’t hold a candle to their older dramatic works. –DHS

    As for Greene, The Human Factor is on my list to read.


  3. Enjoy The Human Factor – it’s neither one of Greene’s Big Works nor an ‘entertainment’ but it had a particular understated emotional resonance for me.

    James, I’ve heard others mention they were struck by this one as well. It might race up to the top of my GreeneLand reading queue as soon as I can get my hands on a copy now that you have peaked my interest. –DHS

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