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Burn After Reading

August 24, 2010

Burn after Reading (2008)
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Actors: Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich (300×201)

Synopsis: The memoirs of a CIA agent end up being bounced around a random bunch of fools in Washington DC.

Review: Coming after the critically-acclaimed No Country for Old Men, and the unfairly castigated Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, this is easily the Coen brothers’ weakest effort in recent memory. What really diminishes the film is its dull and cobbled feel, and the vague, conceited sense that the Coens and their latest troupe feel they can get by on shameless mugging and a sense of irony alone. The counter-argument would be that the film is a spoof of spy movies and therefore intentionally revolves around narrative anti-climaxes and subversions of genre expectations. That thesis is fundamentally counter-intuitive however, because, if you follow its twisted logic it would seem to indicate that the Coens have set out to make a purposely ‘bad’ movie. Surely No Country for Old Men is proof that quality and genre-subversion are not mutually exclusive bed-fellows, and therefore Burn after Reading has no excuses for its idle flaws. An especially instructive slight at the picture is how the cast, full of such interesting and consistent performers such as Frances McDormand, George Clooney and Tilda Swinton, appear so loose and adrift within the narrative. Ironically it is John Malkovich – an actor regularly associated with hammy and indolent performances – who provides the necessary verve and serio-comedic relish that one would expect from the entire ensemble in a Coen brothers’ picture. (October 2008)

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