Burn After Reading Review

Who appears on the cast of an ensemble feature is just as much a reason to view as the plot or those in the directing chair are reasons. It sounds unreasonable, but it is true. Many have suffered through the slog of catching up with the unknown, shadowy parts of their favourite filmographies. There is a reason, naturally, that people have watched Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. Whether that is because their father marks it as their favourite film or because it is a feature that J.K. Simmons featured in is beyond the reasoning. Take refuge in the ensemble feature, good or bad. Burn After Reading happens to be good. Just good, mind. Not more than that.

Brad Pitt, grinning away with those pearly whites, peering out from the cupboard, shrouded in coats. If there were one face to summarise this film it would be that one. Not because it is the best scene Burn After Reading has to offer. Not because it is the best performance in the film (that would be shared between Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich), but because it was recycled on the internet for years and years. Has the new consumption of media in meme-worthy formats changed how audiences perceive and engage with Burn After Reading? Even if the cooker light effect happens, that little spring to action that recognises a piece of media repurposed, like screengrabs from Spider-Man, there is a new reaction.

That is what makes Burn After Reading such an interesting Coen Brothers feature to return to after all these years. Joel and Ethan Coen try their hand at a lighter comedy that still features their bloody reunions, darker thoughts and intricate miseries, shared evenly between a star-studded cast. The ensemble is in full swing. Character actors, method actors, big Hollywood stars, all coming together to mark out territory in a film stuffed to the brim with bigshots of the time, and David Rasche. Always a pleasure to spot Succession alumni in a film that figures its reliance on character is enough to see it through. It is. Just about. Burn After Reading is the expected dark horse of the filmography for the Coen Brothers, although it does not rise and rise as well as it should. Certainly entertaining, but more because Malkovich screams of crucifixions and drinking in his opening scenes than anything else.

Of course, Burn After Reading is more than just Malkovich losing his marbles. It is also an encouraging series of events that sees the Coen Brothers stretch their writing proficiency. Tilda Swinton as the nagging wife of Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) is marvellous. George Clooney as an irritant fellow who cares for himself is stupendous. Marvellous and intricate characters come together with the sake of good humour tying them all together. Burn After Reading is undeniably fun, a genuine blast and the delivery of its dialogue keeps its pacing fast and breezy. It is when that Coen Brothers charm turns on, the deep desire to dive further into the intricacies of these characters, that the threat of unravelling comes clear. It never does happen, but it gets closer than most. Affairs, flurries of guilt and fantastic turns from everyone involved. Why doesn’t it get over the finish line as well as their other works? Perhaps it is the slight disconnect between all these great ideas. They flourish, but independently, rather than together.

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