Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich
Watch Burn After Reading online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Blinded by the Academy light after No Country for Old Men, many forgot exactly who the Coen brothers are. With this loopy, off-the-cuff comedy, Ethan and Joel have reminded them. For years, America’s auteur duo has refused to tow the party line; from the pitch-black humour of Fargo to the matured philosophy of Miller’s Crossing, they’ve dished out personal projects without apology. With their latest offering, they’ve done a complete U-turn, moving from the bleak West of No Country into sun-bleached Lebowski territory. The result may be brief, but it burns twice as bright.
CIA deskman Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) has just been fired. This makes him angry. So he does what any self-respecting bald man with a drinking problem would do: he writes revealing memoirs. But no sooner are they writ than they fall into the lap of local gym instructor Linda Litzke (McDormand). Teaming up with fellow employee Chad (Pitt – all highlights and no grey matter), they try to blackmail Osbourne, threatening to take the incriminating disc to the Russians (the cultural attache, to be precise). Meanwhile, online dater and federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) is building naughty things in the basement, and is busy getting off with both Linda and Ozzy’s icy wife, Katie (Swinton). It’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before Harry’s handgun goes off.
And go off it does, creating a mess the CIA struggle to make sense of; in an all-too-brief cameo, J.K. Simmons is perfect as the bewildered senior officer. (“Come back when it makes… more sense.”) Things soon escalate beyond absurdity; Linda’s seeking state-funded surgery, Chad’s committing federal treason, Ozzy’s wielding an axe in his pyjamas, and Clooney’s mugging at every man wearing a suit and shades – in short, it’s all very, very silly, and all in a manner that only the Coens can pull off. The paid have had a few, rare misses in the past (the less said about The Ladykillers the better) but this is top-notch moviemaking of the daftest order, its inspiredly dense characters easily serving up gawky, sweary madness without breaking into sweat.
It all meshes together with such glorious enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to laugh along. Especially when Mormons come into play. Loose on plot yet tightly directed, the Coen’s care and attention can be found in the little things, from the never-ending corridors to their slow opening shot, which creeps up on Langley headquarters with a cheeky charm. Swift and deceptively sharp, Burn After Reading is 90 minutes of carefully crafted nonsense, its punchy ending a snappy indictment of the government’s inept intelligence.
Burn After Reading is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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