Burn After Reading (2008)

Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: FFFF=F
Budget: $37 million
Box Office: $142 million (60 U.S., 82 Intl.)

Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother Where Art Thou, Big Lebowski, Fargo, Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, and Raising Arizona)
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and JK Simmons.

When a retiring CIA analyst loses possession of some classified portions of his exosee memoir, he finds himself being blackmailed by two bumbling gym employees who discover they are in way over their heads. Meanwhile, embroiled (sort of) in the middle of all this is a womanizing treasury agent.

Entertainment Value: F
The Coen brothers are sort of an acquired taste, or, perhaps more accurately, they just taste bizarre and you either like it or you don’t. Well even for someone like me who has often loved their movies, this was stupid and unentertaining in the extreme. It wasn’t funny. It was vulgar. And it was totally pointless. As if to rub salt in the wound, in the extras, they obscure directors actually admit that their goal was simply to concoct a plot so that these actors could be forced to play bizarre characters and see what happens. What happened was a highly disappointing movie. If Seinfeld was a very funny show about nothing, Burn After Reading was a very unfunny movie about nothing.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity F, Violence D, Language H, Illegality D
Several sex scenes without nudity, adultery, and a theme of bizarre sex toys. There is a bloody murder. The language is outrageous right from the very beginning. Lots of alcohol, although no drunkenness that I recall.

Significant Content: F
Spy agencies are inept. Everybody is having an affair. Everyone in Washington is paranoid.

Artistic/Thought Value: F
The Coen brothers are already off-the-map for their bizarreness, but this looks very much like two guys deliberately trying to find out how bad of a movie they have to make before all the artistic types in Hollywood will actually admit that they’ve made a terrible movie. Based on the reviews, they still haven’t succeeded. This is possibly intended to be the movie version of some of the awful “I dare you to actually admit it’s not art” art in modern museums. And apparently no one dares besides me.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think actors are drawn to playing unconventional roles in unusual movies? Do you think they are trying to prove something about themselves? Why are artists so often driven to be something different than the normal culture around them? Is this rebelliousness unhealthy?
~What do you think is the point of this movie supposed to be?
~Considering each of the characters in turn, what motivates them?
Overall Grade: F
I’ll admit it. If there was something here to be “gotten,” well I certainly didn’t “get it.” But since I usually do, I’m going to go ahead and say what no one else seems willing to: This movie is an absurd piece of trash from a pair of writer/directors who are capable of real genius. Please do better next time, boys. Also, “First Look Studios” is hereby banned from the Tallman household. War, Inc., Meet Bill, Two Tickets to Paradise, Miss Conception, and now this? Ah, bye-bye.

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