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Burn After Reading
Actors and directors at the top of their game.
Burn After Reading
Brad Pitt on the Set of "Burn After Reading."
OPENING WEEKEND: $20,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $78,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

December 17th, 2007: A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it.

What to Expect: There are few people in Hollywood who can claim a resume as impressive as that of the Coen Brothers. The duo were cruising; churning out hit after hit throughout the 80's and 90's, including classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. It seemed that they could do no wrong. Then in 2003, the unthinkable happened. The Coens released Intolerable Cruelty and the movie bombed, receiving poor reviews and failing at the box office. Then the next year, they followed it up with Ladykillers which had similar results despite a great cast (Tom Hanks) and plenty of hype. The brothers really needed a big movie to get back on track and got exactly that with No Country for Old Men. The film proved to everyone that not only do they still have what it takes, but that they are better than ever. Now fans and critics eagerly await their next movie, which happens to be Burn After Reading, an extremely smart and funny comedy that will surely live up to the hype.

Article continues below

Burn After Reading, on the surface, is very different from No Country For Old Men. After all, it is going to be a comedy set in a completely different place and time. Yet, below the surface, these movies share certain characteristics and story structure that are common to all Coen projects. They usually have characters that are not necessarily evil or overly stupid; instead they focus on one flaw that leads them to make a series of mistakes and takes them down a violent and destructive freefall. These characters are usually very well developed, making the audience feel extremely intimate with them and even more caught up in the plight. Then, of course, there is the signature Coen dialogue which is always extremely clever and conscious of the dialect of the time and location the story is taking place, as if they have lived there their entire lives. The Coens try to infuse these motifs into every movie that they do, but they are obviously more prevalent in films from an original Coen script, like Reading, which is definitely a story of missteps.

First, recently fired and disgraced CIA agent, Osbourne Cox, decides to write his memoir, in the process revealing top secret government information. Then his wife decides to steal the information to use against him in their divorce proceedings, but her lawyer's secretary leaves the disk with the memoir at the gym where it is found by two gym employees Lynda and Chad. Lynda then convinces dimwitted Chad that they should try to sell the memoir to the highest bidder to pay for her plastic surgery instead of doing the right thing by turning it in. In response, the government dispatches agent Harry Pfarrer to recover the memoir at whatever cost. As a result, the gym culture and the CIA culture are set on an irreversible collision course. Now that is classic Coen! If Cox is not bitter and does not decide to write the secrets down then the story does not happen. If his wife does not steal the memoir or the lawyer is not careless with it then nothing bad occurs. Finally, if Lynda and Chad are not greedy and vein and return the disk then everything would be just fine. However, the combination of all of these missteps will lead to many bad things and plenty of comedy.

The other advantage of this being an original script is the fact that each of the major parts, except for Cindy, were actually custom written for a particular actor. The part of Osbourne Cox was written with John Malkovich in mind. Surprisingly the Coens have never work with him, but both parties were very excited at this first opportunity. The part of Chad, the trainer, was exclusively created for Brad Pitt. Pitt had always wanted to work with the Coens, but there was never a good part for him, until now. Then the character of Harry was custom written for George Clooney, a long time collaborator of the brothers. What is really interesting is that both Pitt's and Clooney's roles are both kind of dumb, which would be a big departure from the norm for the actors. We are used to seeing these Hollywood A-listers playing the smart guys who are always a step ahead of everyone else (think Oceans movies). In fact, Pitt has not played a stupid character since his tiny part in True Romance, but even that was extremely memorable. Meanwhile, Clooney is always some smooth talking doctor, master criminal, or ship captain unless it is of course a Coen movie. He jokingly refers to Burn After Reading as the completion of his "stupid guy" trilogy. Another thing that is interesting about Clooney's part is that this is yet another movie in which he will not handle a gun, even though it seems like the character should; he is a government agent after all. Apparently, Clooney now purposely avoids handling guns on screen, even though he gladly did in many of his early films like Three Kings and Peacemaker.

To round off the cast, Frances McDormand was cast as Ozzie's ex wife and Tilda Swinton as Cindy. McDormand is another Coen veteran, who worked with the directors on the Man Who Wasn't There and Fargo, winning an Oscar for the latter. Swinton, on the other hand, is a Coen virgin, but she has just starred opposite Clooney in Michael Clayton. As a result of the casting, all of the stars have worked together before, which creates instant chemistry amongst the group, especially between Clooney and Pitt. It seems that Pitt now spends more time with Clooney then he does with Angelina Jolie.

This instant chemistry is very important since the project had a very tight shooting schedule, an unfortunate side effect of having so many big stars with busy schedules. The Coens started filming in August 2007 and were finished by November. They even had a break since Clooney somehow even found time to get into a motorcycle accident. Most of the shooting took place in Brooklyn Heights, NYC, even though the story actually takes place in Washington DC. It turns out that the Coens refused to travel the meager two hundred miles south to film on location, because they wanted to stay at home. They even went as far as to paint an entire block of houses to look like Georgetown. I guess when you are as accomplished as the Coens, you will get your way.

Despite all of the familiarity, there was one person that was noticeably absent: cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has worked on every movie with the Coens since Miller's Crossing in 1990. However, for Reading, filming will be handled by Emmanuel Lubezki. Apparently, the Coens wanted to use the new Red One HD camera for this project. The Red One is a camera that best captures natural light which leads to much more natural looking scenes. Lubezki first used it on Children of Men for which he got an Oscar nomination. I am not really sure why this is so important in a comedy, since ideally the audience will be laughing so much that they will not even notice the cinematography. Thus, I do not think this is as big of a deal as some are making it out to be.

In Conclusion: The Coens are definitely back in a big way. They are about to follow up their award winning drama No Country for Old Men with the dark, yet hilarious comedy Burn After Reading. The film is the first movie in a while to feature an original Coen script, which should raise the bar for this project. To execute the script, the Coens assembled a nice mix of Coen Veterans (Clooney, McDormand) and Coen newbies (Pitt, Malkovich). As usual, we can expect an extremely smart and funny movie that will be watched and re-watched for sometime to come. In fact, I am going out on a limb and say that this will probably be a close second for funniest Coen movie ever, and there will be those who say that it is even funnier than the Big Lebowski. Of course that remains to be seen.

Similar Titles: The Big Lebowski, Dumb & Dumber, Ocean's Eleven
September 12th, 2008 (wide)
December 21st, 2008 (DVD)

Focus Features

Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins

Total: 65 vote(s).

Comedy, Drama


Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

96 min




Burn After Reading at Trailer Addict

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