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Burn After Reading

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Produced by Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Written by Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Starring George Clooney
Frances McDormand
John Malkovich
Tilda Swinton
Richard Jenkins
Brad Pitt
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki
Editing by Roderick Jaynes
Studio Relativity Media
StudioCanal
Working Title Films
Mike Zoss Productions
Distributed by Focus Features
Release date(s) August 27, 2008 (2008-08-27)
(Venice Film Festival)
September 12, 2008 (2008-09-12)
(United States)
October 17, 2008 (2008-10-17)
(United Kingdom)
Running time 96 minutes
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $37 million
Gross revenue $161,128,228

Burn After Reading is a 2008 American black comedy film written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.[1] The film stars George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, and Brad Pitt. It was released in the United States on September 12, 2008, and it was released on October 17, 2008 in the United Kingdom. The film had its premiere on August 27, 2008, when it opened the 2008 Venice Film Festival.[2] The film is the brothers' first film following their Academy Award for Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men.

Contents

Plot

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who decides to write a memoir about the CIA after getting fired. His wife, pediatrician Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), wants a divorce and copies his personal files onto a compact disc. Her lawyer's receptionist accidentally leaves the disc at Hardbodies, a health club.

Two employees of the gym, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) get hold of the disc and assume that it is highly classified information. At first, Chad and Linda plan to give the disc back to Osbourne for a reward; the money to pay for Linda's cosmetic surgery. However, they resort to blackmail. Chad meets Osbourne who, aware that the "information" is merely his memoir, refuses to pay. Chad explains to Linda that Osbourne hit him and refused to give him the money. Linda decides to take the information to the Russian embassy. At the embassy, she hands over the disc, promising that she will give more information afterwards. But because they don't actually have any more information, they decide to break into Osbourne's house to steal more.

Katie has been having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a womanizing Treasury agent. By chance, he has recently met Linda online and begun an affair with her as well. Chad stakes out Osbourne's house and breaks in when he sees Harry and Katie leave. Harry, however, returns and startled to find Chad hiding in a closet, and shoots him point blank. Chad is not carrying ID and has cut the labels out of his clothes; when Harry sees this, he thinks Chad is a spy and disposes of the body. Two days later at the CIA headquarters, an official (David Rasche) and his director (J. K. Simmons) learn that information from Osbourne has been transferred to the Russian Embassy. They are perplexed and decide to maintain observation until the situation "makes sense".

A few days later, Harry leaves Osbourne's house after a brief argument with Katie. On his way out, he spots the man who has been trailing him. Harry discovers that the man works for a divorce firm hired by his wife, who is later revealed to have been cheating on him as well. Harry is devastated and goes to see an agitated Linda, who confides in Harry that her friend Chad is missing; he agrees to try to help find him (not knowing that Chad is the man he killed in Cox's home earlier).

The next morning, Harry and Linda meet in a park, and she provides him with more information about Chad's disappearance. When Harry realizes that Chad is the man he killed, he becomes paranoid once more and flees in terror, assuming that Linda is also a spy. Linda then turns to Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), the manager of Hardbodies, who has feelings for her. Believing that the Russians have kidnapped Chad, he agrees to look for more information in Osbourne's computer. But Osbourne, finding that Katie has emptied their bank account, decides to break into his own house. Finding Ted at his computer, Osbourne kills him with a hatchet.

The movie ends at CIA headquarters a few days later, where the official and his director are trying to understand what happened.

Cast

Production

Working Title Films produced the film for Focus Features, which also has worldwide distribution rights.[4]

Burn After Reading was the first Coen brothers movie since Miller's Crossing not to use Roger Deakins as cinematographer. Emmanuel Lubezki, the four-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer of Sleepy Hollow and Children of Men, took over for Deakins.[5] Mary Zophres served as costume designer, marking her eighth consecutive movie with the Coen brothers.[4] Carter Burwell, a composer who worked with the Coens in eleven previous films, created the score for Burn After Reading. Early in the production, Burwell and the Coens decided the score should include a great deal of percussion instruments, which the filmmakers felt would match the deluded self-importance the characters felt about themselves. In creating the score, they discussed the political thriller Seven Days in May, which included an all-drums score; the Burn score consisted of a great deal of Japanese Taiko drums. Joel Coen said they wanted the score to be "something big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless."[6]

Burn After Reading is the first original screenplay penned by Joel and Ethan Coen since their 2001 movie, The Man Who Wasn't There.[7] Ethan Coen compared Burn After Reading to the Allen Drury political novel Advise and Consent and called it "our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie, without the explosions."[8] Joel Coen said they intended to create a spy movie because "we hadn't done one before,"[9] but he feels the final result was more of a character-driven movie than a spy story. Joel also said Burn After Reading was not meant to be a comment or satire on Washington D.C.[6]

Parts of the Burn screenplay were written while the Coens were also writing their adaptation of No Country for Old Men.[6] The Coens created characters with actors George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins in mind for the parts, and the script derived from the brothers' desire to include them into a "fun story."[10] Ethan Coen said Pitt's character was partially inspired by a botched hair coloring job from a commercial the actor filmed.[11] Tilda Swinton, who was cast later than the rest of the cast, was one of the only major actors whose character was not written specifically for her. The Coens struggled to develop a common filming schedule among the A-list cast.[12]

Production Weekly, an online entertainment industry magazine, falsely reported in October 2006 that Burn After Reading was a loose adaptation of Burn Before Reading: Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence, a memoir by former U.S. Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner.[13] Although both stories involve the Central Intelligence Agency and derive their titles from the top secret classification term, the Coen brothers script has nothing to do with the Turner book; nevertheless, the rumor was not clarified until a Los Angeles Times article more than one year later.[10]

Principal filming took place around Brooklyn Heights, as the Coens wanted to stay in New York City to be with their families.[14] Other scenes were filmed at Paramus, New Jersey, Westchester County, New York and Washington, D.C., particularly in the Georgetown neighborhood.[1] Filming began on August 27, 2007 and was completed on October 30, 2007.[1] John Malkovich, appearing in his first Coen brothers film, said of the shooting, "The Coens are very delightful: smart, funny, very specific about what they want but not overly controlling, as some people can be."[15] The film premiered in the Venice Film Festival, where it was not among the twenty-one films entered into competition for the festival's Golden Lion.[16]

The Coen brothers said idiocy was a major central theme of Burn After Reading; Joel Coen said he and his brother have "a long history of writing parts for idiotic characters"[16] and described Clooney and Pitt's characters as "dueling idiots."[11] Burn After Reading is the third Coen brothers film for Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty), who acknowledged that he usually plays a fool in their movies: "I've done three films with them and they call it my trilogy of idiots."[16] Joel said after the last scene was shot, "George said: 'OK, I’ve played my last idiot!' So I guess he won’t be working with us again."[17] Pitt, who plays a particularly unintelligent character in Burn After Reading, said of his role, "After reading the part, which they said was hand-written for myself, I was not sure if I should be flattered or insulted."[16] Pitt also said when he was shown the script, he told the Coens he did not know how to play the part because the character was such an idiot: "There was a pause and then Joel goes...'You'll be fine.'"[5]

During a fall movie preview, Entertainment Weekly wrote that John Malkovich "easily racks up the most laughs"[18] among the cast as the foul-mouthed ex-CIA man. The first scene Malkovich performed was a phone call in which he shouts several obscenities at Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand. But Malkovich could not be on the sound stage for the call because he was rehearsing a play, so he called in the lines from his apartment in Paris. Regarding the scene, Malkovich said, "It was really late at night and I was screaming at the top of my lungs. God knows what the neighbors thought."[18] Tilda Swinton plays Malkovich's wife who engages in an affair with George Clooney, although the two characters do not get along well. Clooney's and Swinton's characters also had a poor relationship in their previous film together, Michael Clayton, prompting Clooney to say to Swinton at the end of a shoot, "Well, maybe one day we'll get to make a film together when we say one nice thing to each other."[18] Swinton said of the dynamic, "I'm very happy to shout at him on screen. It's great fun."[1]

Swinton described Burn After Reading as "a kind of monster caper movie,"[17] and said of the characters, "All of us are monsters – like, true monsters. It’s ridiculous."[17] She also said, "I think there is something random at the heart of this one. On the one hand, it really is bleak and scary. On the other, it is really funny. ... It's the whatever-ness of it. You feel that at any minute of any day in any town, this could happen."[8] Malkovich said of the characters, "No one in this film is very good. They're either slightly emotional or mentally defective. Quirky, self-aggrandizing, scheming."[15] Pitt said the cast did little ad-libbing because the script was so tightly written and wove so many overlapping stories together.[9] Richard Jenkins said the Coen brothers asked him if he could lose weight for his role as the gym manager, to which Jenkins jokingly replied, "I'm a 60-year-old man, not Brad Pitt. My body isn't going to change."[19]

Joel Coen said the machine built by George Clooney's character was inspired by a machine he once saw a key grip build, and by another machine he saw in the Museum of Sex in New York City.[6]

Reception

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Critical reception

Reviews for the film were mostly positive, earning a 78% "Certified Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 213 reviews as of November 26, 2009.[20] The film fared worse among "Top Critics," earning a 59% "Certified Rotten" rating out of 39 reviews.[21] The Times, which gave the movie four out of five stars, compared it to Coen films Raising Arizona and Fargo in its "savagely comic taste for creative violence and a slightly mocking eye for detail."[7] The review said the attention to detail was so impeccable that "the Coens can even raise a laugh with something as simple as a well-placed photograph of Vladimir Putin,"[7] and complimented Carter Burwell's musical score, which it described as "the most paranoid piece of film music since Quincy Jones's neurotic soundtrack for The Anderson Tapes."[7] Andrew Pulver, film reviewer for The Guardian called the movie "a tightly wound, slickly plotted spy comedy that couldn't be in bigger contrast to the Coens' last film, the bloodsoaked, brooding No Country for Old Men."[22] Pulver, who also gave Burn After Reading four out of five stars, said it "may also go down as arguably the Coens' happiest engagement with the demands of the Hollywood A-list."[22] Pulver said Brad Pitt had some of the funniest moments and that compared to the other Coen brothers movies, Burn After Reading most resembles Intolerable Cruelty.[22] The Hollywood Reporter reviewer Kirk Honeycutt complimented the actors for making fun of their screen personae, and said the Coen brothers "have taken some of cinema's top and most expensive actors and chucked them into Looney Tunes roles in a thriller."[23] Honeycutt also said "it takes awhile to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humor of Burn because this is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly."[23]

Todd McCarthy, of Variety magazine, wrote a strongly negative review of Burn After Reading, which he said "tries to mate sex farce with a satire of a paranoid political thriller, with arch and ungainly results."[24] McCarthy said the talented cast was forced to act like cartoon characters, described Carter Burwell's score as "uncustomarily overbearing"[24] and said the dialogue is "dialed up to an almost grotesquely exaggerated extent, making for a film that feels misjudged from the opening scene and thereafter only occasionally hits the right note." Time film critic Richard Corliss said he did not understand what the Coen brothers were attempting with the film, and after describing the plot, wrote, "I have the sinking feeling I've made Burn After Reading sound funnier than it is. The movie's glacial affectlessness, its remove from all these subpar schemers, left me cold and perplexed."[25] Corliss complimented Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons for their brief supporting roles.[25] David Denby of The New Yorker said the movie had several funny scenes, but they "are stifled by a farce plot so bleak and unfunny that it freezes your responses after about forty-five minutes."[26] Denby also criticized the pattern of violence in the movie, in which innocent people die quickly and the guilty go unpunished. "These people don’t mean much to [the Coen brothers]; it’s hardly a surprise that they don’t mean much to us, either. ... Even black comedy requires that the filmmakers love someone, and the mock cruelties in Burn After Reading come off as a case of terminal misanthropy."[26]

Leah Rozen, of People magazine, said the characters' "unrelenting dumbness and dim-witted behavior is at first amusing and enjoyable but eventually grows wearing."[27] But Rozen said the performances are a redeeming factor, especially that of Pitt, who she described as a standout who "manages simultaneously to be delightfully broad and smartly nuanced."[27]

Le Monde noticed its "particularly bitter image of the U.S. The alliance of political incompetence (the CIA), the cult of appearance (the gym club) and vulgar stupidity (everyone) is the target of a settling of scores" where the comedy "sprouts from a well of bitterness."[28]

The movie was nominated at the 2009 Golden Globe awards for Best Comedy or Musical and for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy or Musical.[29] The National Board of Review named Burn After Reading to their list of the Top 10 Movies of 2008. Noel Murray of The A.V. Club named it the second best film of 2008,[30] Empire magazine named it the third best film of 2008,[30] and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly named it the seventh best film of 2008.[30]

Box office

In its opening weekend, the film grossed $19.1 million in 2,651 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking number one at the box office.[31] As of July, 2009, it has grossed $60.3 million in the United States and Canada and $100.8 million in other countries adding up to $161.1 million worldwide gross.[32]

Home video

Burn After Reading was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on December 21, 2008, on Region 1. The Region 2 version was released on February 9, 2009.

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d Carpenter, Cassie (January 23, 2008). "Fire and ice queen". Back Stage. http://www.backstage.com/bso/news_reviews/features/feature_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003700448. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  2. ^ "Coen Brothers Film To Open This Year's Venice Film Festival". CBSnews.com. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/04/28/ap/entertainment/main4049219.shtml. Retrieved 2008-04-28. 
  3. ^ "Burn After Reading Cast and crew". Workingtitle.com. http://www.workingtitlefilms.co.uk/filmCastCrew.php?filmID=112. Retrieved 2008-01-07. 
  4. ^ a b "Production begins on Burn After Reading". NBC Universal. 2007. http://www.clooneystudio.com/articles2007/production_begins_burnafterreading.html. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  5. ^ a b ""Burn After Reading": The Coens go back to their kooky roots". Empire: 30. December 2007. 
  6. ^ a b c d Kelly, Kevin (September 11, 2008). "The Coen Brothers, Burn After Reading, Toronto 2008". SpoutBlog. http://blog.spout.com/2008/09/11/the-coen-brothers-interview-burn-after-reading-toronto-2008/. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Burn After Reading review". London: The Times. August 27, 2008. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/film_reviews/article4618799.ece. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  8. ^ a b Wloszczyna, Susan (September 2, 2008). "Fall movie preview: Coens dumb it down with Burn". USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2008-08-28-coen-brothers_N.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-10. 
  9. ^ a b Barry, Colleen (August 28, 2008). "Burn After Reading debuts in Venice". Associated Press. http://dailygleaner.canadaeast.com/liveit/article/399116. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  10. ^ a b Fernandez, Jay A (November 21, 2007). "Strikers' dilemma: to write or not". Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2007/nov/21/entertainment/et-scriptland21. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  11. ^ a b Covert, Colin (November 8, 2007). "Q&A: Coens return to old Country". Star Tribune. http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/movies/11551181.html. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  12. ^ Morrison, Alan (January 2008). "Upcoming Coens". Empire: 183. 
  13. ^ "Clooney ignites Coen bros. reunion". Production Weekly. October 22, 2006. http://www.filmwad.com/clooney-ignites-coen-bros-reunion-1202-p.html. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  14. ^ "Fun With George and Brad". http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20035285_20035331_20041613_6,00.html. Retrieved 2007-06-09. 
  15. ^ a b "Burn After Reading": Autumn. Empire. February 2008. 
  16. ^ a b c d "Venice opens with Pitt and Clooney in madcap comedy". Reuters. August 27, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/27/AR2008082701015.html. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  17. ^ a b c "Burn After Reading - Preview". IndieLondon. October 2008. http://www.indielondon.co.uk/Film-Review/burn-after-reading-preview. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  18. ^ a b c Karger, Dave (August 22/29, 2008). Fall Movie Summer Preview, September: "Burn After Reading". Entertainment Weekly. p. 47. 
  19. ^ Chi, Paul. "Richard Jenkins feels the Burn with Brad Pitt." People, Vol. 70, No. 12, September 22, 2008, pg. 34.
  20. ^ "Burn After Reading (2008)". Rotten Tomatoes. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/burn_after_reading/. Retrieved 2008-09-20. 
  21. ^ "Burn After Reading (2008) - "Top Critics"". Rotten Tomatoes. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/burn_after_reading/?critic=creamcrop. Retrieved 2008-09-15. 
  22. ^ a b c Pulver, Andrew (August 27, 2008). "A tightly wound triumph". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/aug/27/venicefilmfestival.coenbrothers1. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  23. ^ a b Honeycutt, Kirk (August 27, 2008). "Film Review: Burn After Reading". The Hollywood Reporter. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/awards_festivals/fest_reviews/article_display.jsp?JSESSIONID=nhdpL1VLywL5kZQyH8PWPZmfJ5TM1KD0KTpJg8fzwnm0mBpTLvJF!329093835&&rid=11547. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  24. ^ a b McCarthy, Todd (August 27, 2008). "Burn After Reading Review". Variety. http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117938083.html?categoryid=31&cs=1. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  25. ^ a b Corliss, Richard (August 31, 2008). "Baffled by Burn After Reading". Time. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1837730,00.html. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  26. ^ a b Denby, David (September 15, 2008). "Storm Warnings: Burn After Reading and Trouble the Water". The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/09/15/080915crci_cinema_denby. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  27. ^ a b Rozen, Leah (September 22, 2008). "Burn After Reading". 70. People. p. 34. 
  28. ^ Mandelbaum, Jacques (December 9, 2008). "Burn After Reading: une galerie de stars lustre le noir des Coen" (in French). Le Monde. http://www.lemonde.fr/cinema/article/2008/12/09/burn-after-reading-une-galerie-de-stars-lustre-le-noir-des-coen_1128787_3476.html#ens_id=1052988. 
  29. ^ MONACO (January 11, 2009). "2009 Golden Globe Awards winners / Golden Globe winners 2009". http://www.monacome.com/2009/01/2009-golden-globe-awards-winners.html. Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  30. ^ a b c "Metacritic: 2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. http://www.metacritic.com/film/awards/2008/toptens.shtml. Retrieved January 11, 2009. 
  31. ^ "Burn After Reading (2008) - Weekend Box Office Results". Box Office Mojo. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=weekend&id=burnafterreading.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  32. ^ "Burn After Reading (2008)". Box Office Mojo. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=burnafterreading.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 

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