Some thoughts on Burn After Reading

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I know I’m really late to the party on this movie, but I finally got a chance to go see Burn After Reading the other day and since several of my readers have asked me to post my thoughts about it, I hereby oblige. Please read no further without seeing the movie first (something I highly recommend under any circumstances).

After seeing the movie, I checked the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes to see what our critical elite thought of the picture. To my shock, the critics seem divided into two camps: those who hate the movie because it’s just silly and doesn’t add up to much, and those who love the movie because it’s just silly and doesn’t add up to much. Color me flabbergasted: Burn After Reading, while certainly being a comedy, is by no means "silly" and adds up to a great deal, too much to take in in one viewing. The critical response is especially surprising coming ten years after The Big Lebowski, another dense, rich, oddball Coen comedy that was dismissed as a trifle in its initial release. Given that Lebowski has, this very summer, undergone a popular rebirth and a wealth of new analysis, this critical lapse strikes me as especially confounding. Critics are, after all, professional writers, surely, surely, one would expect at least a few of them to recognize quality writing when they see it.

The screenplay is, like all Coen scripts, ridiculously dense and multi-layered, and competent analysis will have to wait until the DVD is released. In the meantime, here are my initial impressions:

Like the Coen classics Blood Simple, Fargo and No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading features multiple protagonists that form their own "teams:" Osbourne is trying to maintain his dignity and place in society after being fired, Linda is trying to maintain her looks in the face of simple aging, and Harry is trying to turn his sexual addiction into a moneymaking scheme. The extremely unlikely collision of these three self-improvement agendas is what drives the plot. Tone-wise, it feels to me like a smushing-together of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, and that’s a very good thing.

Metaphorically speaking, it seems that the Coens are examining a kind of mind/body split. Osbourne is from the intelligence community and represents the mind, while Linda is from the body community. Harry, on the other hand, seems to spring from the sex community. So maybe we’re talking about a mind/body/sex split. Osbourne, Linda and Harry are all specialists: Osbourne is very good at thinking (or claims so, anyway) while being useless as a physical being, Linda is valuable as a physical being but has no mental faculties whatsoever, and Harry’s sexual obsessions speak for themselves.

Thinking about specificity brings me to the idea that all the characters represent different parts of the body. Osbourne represents the mind, Linda the face (her obsession is her appearance), Harry the penis. Chad, Linda’s hapless pal, is "nosy," and gets his nose punched for his trouble, before getting shot in the face by Harry with his gun(that is, his penis metaphor). Ted, Linda’s unrequited lover, is all heart, the various spooks, detectives and lawyers are all eyes, constantly watching the action. These characters are all good at their specific functions, but utterly incompetent in others. It’s as if the Coens are examining the "body politic" of the US, suggesting that, if the population of the US could be looked at as a single body, there’s something dangerously unhealthy about us. This lack of health presents itself as a profound confusion: the signature line for the movie is "What the fuck?"

If we look at this health report as a business model, here’s what emerges: Linda, the face, wants to steal from Osbourne, the mind, to improve the appearance of the body, in order to invest in a merger with Harry, the penis. The penis is king in this portrait of a body, with all the effort and capital flowing in its direction. That’s why I think the plot begins with Osbourne getting fired: the problem, say the Coens, begins when we de-value "intelligence," then de-value it further by investing in appearances, in order to fuel our sexual obsessions. Obviously there is an Iraq metaphor in there: Bush (Bush!) prosecuted his adventure in Iraq by ignoring his intelligence, investing all his capital in the appearance of victory, all to fuel what could easily be the sexual need to bomb the shit out a country. Viewed this way, Burn After Reading becomes a political satire beyond anything Kubrick ever came up with.

Even if we remove a political metaphor, we still see a satire about people with important jobs who are nevertheless enslaved to the demands of their bodies, specifically their addictions. Osbourne would be a great analyst, if he weren’t also an alcoholic, Linda would be happy if she weren’t addicted to a good appearance, Harry would be a useful marhall if he weren’t chasing skirt all day (I forget why he’s not a marshall any more — if anybody caught that, let me know).

If we trace each protagonist’s need, we see that they each get what they want, although they each get it in a way they weren’t anticipating. Osbourne, after getting fired, wants nothing more than to drink himself into a coma. He does end up in a coma, but he gets there despite his drinking.  Linda does indeed rob the intelligence community in order to improve her body.  Harry, who is obsessed with running (and has been running from responsibility for years), gets his wish — he runs all the way to Venezuela.  Chad, obsessed with his body, becomes just that — a body.

The acting throughout is excellent, some of the best in the Coen canon, but let me single out Brad Pitt for his extraordinary performance as enthusiastic dim-bulb Chad. I’ve been an admirer of Pitt for a decade now, but he just seems to get better and better, a leading man with a huge range and an ever-increasing command of technique.

I’ve also noticed that the Coens’ directorial style, which was ironed flat for No Country, has become increasingly fluid and un-selfconscious, almost mannerless, which I think is a big part of why Burn After Reading is on its way to becoming their biggest hit.


50 Responses to “Some thoughts on Burn After Reading”
  1. I actually hadn’t really been paying attention before going to see it and didn’t realize it had Brad Pitt in it. As Chad, he does a pretty good Val-Kilmer-from-the-80’s impression.

  2. clayfoot says:

    Boy, this political blog has really gotten off track…

    You may also like Metacritic’s scoring system, over Rotten Tomatoes. On Metacritic, Burn After Reading got 63%, or “Generally favorable reviews.”

  3. johnnycrulez says:

    Are you still planning on doing the Blob?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Excellent thoughts. I’ve been trying to sort out my reading of this film ever since I saw it, opening night.

    A couple observations:

    1-Osbourne chides Ted for being an idiot before shooting him, which reminded me of Buscemi taunting the dad in FARGO.
    2-The shots of Linda driving and looking anxious near the story’s end recall Frances’ earlier turn in FARGO and some of the shots of Chigurgh in NCfoM.

    I enjoyed it.

  5. jeffwik says:

    Early in this movie, Osbourne takes his father out on the boat, and afterwards there’s a shot of him wheeling his father along the dock, seen from a distance through foreground obstructions (rigging IIRC). I was immediately reminded of the footage in the newsreel sequence of Citizen Kane of Kane being wheeled around by a servant, viewed through holes in Kane’s fence. Which made me wonder whether it was a deliberate reference, and if so, whether there are Citizen Kane references elsewhere in this or other Coen brothers movies that I haven’t noticed.

    • In Hudsucker Proxy, when Paul Newman describes how the board will discredit Norville Barnes, he lists off several adjectives that are identical to ones used in Kane by the narrator of the newsreel to describe Kane after being caught with his mistress, with slight changes of tense (“ignominy” rather than “ignominious” – if I’m spelling those right).

      I think a couple of shots in the newsreel in Hudsucker are slight lifts from the Kane newsreel as well.

  6. woodandiron says:

    I really liked this movie a lot and can definitely appreciate your take on it.

    What happened this past summer regarding The Big Lebowski? I’m pretty sure ever since it’s been released to home video then DVD that it has been a groundswell of appreciation for that movie.

    • yetra says:

      10 year anniversary, release of a book “I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You”

  7. mimitabu says:

    it’s been awhile since i saw burn after reading now, so the only thing i remember with great clarity is that i loved it and so did everyone i saw it with. i didn’t pick up on any body metaphors, but i thought putting on display the bleak possibility that all the oppression, corrupt governance, and secret, murderous organizations of the united states might not exist because people are bad/greedy/privileged/divided, but rather because people are confused/stupid and the world is absurd. capitalism is all over this movie, but this time it’s a series of openly absurd goals, pursued absurdly, with largely irrational, unpredictable results. i thought the movie was very funny, very dark, and very good.

    • Anonymous says:

      That was my initial reading, too, so Todd’s interpretation took me by surprise. But one of the great things about this movie — as usual, with the Coen brothers — is that it holds several layers of metaphor and meaning. I haven’t seen it since it opened, but maybe I’ll go back this weekend.

      • mimitabu says:

        the coen brothers really are amazing at providing depth in their movies, in terms of “watch it, get a lot out of it, come back, get a whole different lot out of it.” i’m sure my thoughts will be completely different the next time i see it, especially in light of this lj entry.

    • Todd says:

      The people in Burn After Reading are certainly confused and stupid, but their world is not absurd. Rather, it is motivated by base impulses — greed, sex and revenge.

      To look at it from a capitalist perspective, all three protagonists have found themselves devalued in the current marketplace — Osbourne’s intelligence is no longer useful, Linda’s body is getting older, and Harry’s gun (ahem) has been put out to pasture (after never being used). Each of them is trying to improve him or her self in this challenging new marketplace — Osbourne wants to peddle his useless memoirs, Linda wants a new body and Harry wants to have as much sex as possible, with as many different women as possible.

      Love, in the form of Ted, is a casualty in this harsh new world, as is Friendship, in the form of sweet, simple Chad, who is nothing but Linda’s pawn.

      • mimitabu says:

        i can see that (i can also see that i wrote a loooong incomplete sentence up top there, whoops). however, it seems to me like everyone is pursuing something the value of which they either fail to appreciate or doesn’t exist in the first place, and yet these goals are enough to motivate them to kill, or burn bodies, or get in car chases. like, nothing is important about what’s important to these people, but that won’t stop their actions from having real import. or maybe i’m obsessed with absurdity(:. one way or the other.

        did you see w. (on the topic of motivations and absurdity)? i HATED it. i hated it with a hatred so fiery i have to fight myself to not mar this successfully brief post by writing a diatribe. i haven’t seen a worse movie in a long time. i thought of it because my (now deleted) rambling post about burn after reading almost sounded like it was about w. (stuff about why bad things happen in the world). if there are similarities, i hesitate to acknowledge them due to the vast quality disparity between the 2 movies.

        • Todd says:

          Don’t let me hold you back: why did you hate W.?

          • mimitabu says:

            my hatred for w. is so intense that instead of writing a free-form, rambling diatribe, i’m going to get back to you with a multi-paragraph, labored-over essay (including capital letters to boot!).

            the short version, however, goes: “heavy-handed, overlong, boring, 2 fleshed out characters (george bush 1 and 2) + an ensemble cast of cartoony-bad (but not cartoony enough, cf dr. strangelove) impersonations, no compelling drama, shallow political morals, pointless psychologizing of a public figure inappropriately mixed in with half-assed political commentary, pretentious camera focus things + pretentious baseball field sequences, no cate blanchett.”

            i’m open to hearing any opinion about the movie, good or bad, but personally i felt it failed to deliver for every audience, including (but of course not limited to): people looking for jerry springer thrills; people looking for intelligent political commentary; people looking for drama and characterization; even people looking for preach-to-the-choir laughs. it’s not that satisfying any of those would have made a good movie (well, if it delivered compelling drama, then yeah it would have), but i’m forced to wonder “for whom was this a good movie?” it has some cynical/realistic stuff about the machinations of american power, but nothing we haven’t seen before (in films by the very same director!). what does this movie have for us besides celebrity impressions ranging from decent to awful?

            (p.s. as i’ll mention in the long version, there was 1 thing i liked very much in the movie. laura bush’s character is portrayed as a passionate-ish liberal, and then transitions more or less without comment to over-privileged superficial wasteland by the end of the movie. i thought that character arc was sort of compelling, and i liked that they did it subtly; there was nothing subtle about who she was at the end–the awful, heavyhanded sequence in bed near the end illustrating this (“hey viewer! see how she’s more concerned with frivolous day to day life than other people’s lives!? see it! tell me you seeeee itttt!!!”)–but there was no laboring about “SEE WHAT HAPPENED TO LAURA?!” just a short window into who she was before, and then a tragic window into who she became. i thought that was nice, but i felt the rest of the movie didn’t have anywhere near as much class as that little treatment. p.p.s. the short version ran long.)

            • Todd says:

              The movie didn’t particularly work for me either, but I didn’t hate it with the intensity of a thousand angry suns like you did.

              Like you, I had a hard time figuring out Stone’s narrative game-plan: how will this movie cohere into a dramatic whole? What does the pretzel-choking episode have to do with the war in Iraq? Who is the girl W. sort-of proposes to in the bar and how does that effect the rest of the narrative? And really? The center-field metaphor is the best thing you can come up with? Really? You’re an Oscar-winning writer-director, dude, is that really the reed you’re going to hang your Bush movie on?

          • mimitabu says:

            also, you’re not holding me back, rather some small semblance of propriety and shame tells me not to spam people’s livejournals with rambling, self-indulgent replies. in the past you’ve actually been very gracious and encouraging despite my occasional succumbings to internet-posting-diarrhea.

            (i know discussion is good, and i know i occasionally have meaningful things to bring to a discussion, but i also know that there’s a line between that and something else… a line often obscured by the fervor of putting thoughts to paper/pixels. also, i don’t think the joke of that haughty tone comes through, so i’m going to point out that the haughty tone is sort of playfully joking. i need to get out more.)

  8. cornekopia says:

    Very interesting thoughts; I agree with you the movie is funny, but not silly. It’s actually quite meaty. And if anyone thinks the characters are buffoons rather than realistic people … then they haven’t met enough realistic people. I like the brain, body, face, penis split.

  9. dougo says:

    To me the movie was all about hyperactive agency detection. All the troubles in the movie (and, by extension, in the world) are due to someone mistaking coincidence for conspiracy.

    • Todd says:

      They have a new name for paranoia?

      • dougo says:

        It’s more general than paranoia: they don’t just think that people are out to get them, they see all sorts of motives (and meanings) that don’t exist. Agency detection is an evolutionarily useful trait, but it also leads to superstition and religion. I interpreted the title “Burn After Reading” as advice: don’t read too much into things, messages are ephemeral and disposable, ashes to ashes.

        • Todd says:

          Well, it’s certainly true that there is a good deal of misunderstanding of motives in Burn After Reading. Osbourne insists that the CIA has conspired against him for no good reason and that he has no drinking problem, then goes on to demonstrate that he has a severe drinking problem. Linda thinks she will fail in the relationship marketplace without her surgeries, even though there is a good man aching to love her in her own workplace. Harry becomes convinced that Linda is “one of them” when Linda doesn’t even know who “they” might be. All the protagonists are watched by somebody, but it’s a good bet that none of them are being watched by the agencies they suspect.

          My superficial take on the title is not that there are no signs, but that we have a society where information isn’t valuable. None of the characters have the slightest sense of history — Linda thinks “The Russians” will be interested in Osbourne’s memoirs, which Osbourne can’t get started on in the first place because he can’t remember anything. All the characters sing popular songs to themselves, but none of them get the words right. Chad, I’d bet, could not remember what happened five minutes earlier.

          I wonder if the Coens cast Malkovich because he was in a Lanford Wilson play called Burn This.

  10. musicpsych says:

    I just saw it a few days ago, too. I went hoping to be entertained by all of it, but I was only entertained by some of it (mostly the Linda/Chad/Harry scenes).

    I like your insight, though. It makes me want to watch it again.

  11. samedietc says:

    I didn’t think too much of it, but after reading your thoughts, I wonder if there’s more there to think about.

    First, I like the idea of the split body politic–but it seems to me that the body politic split isn’t so neat. For instance, if Harry represents penile investment, why is Osbourne the guy named Cox? (Though, Harry is totally invested in his own penis; doesn’t he say something to Linda after showing his home-made sex-chair about how he would want to mold a dildo after his own equipment.)

    Along those lines, I wonder if there’s something more to be said here about the split body politic and the attention to team/team-formation. Ozzie is really the only team-less one; Linda has Chad and Ted; Harry has his wife, Katie Cox, and Linda; the CIA guys have each other (and can I get a shout-out for David Rasche from Sledgehammer!); even the detective following Harry is on a team (as he jokes to Harry when caught, of course it’s a team of lawyers, it’s not a band–though that too would be a team).

    Second, thinking about the body politic makes me think that maybe the center-piece word isn’t “fuck” but “shit”–the product of the body, its after-effect. Chad’s line to Cox–

    “You should be concerned … about the security … of your shit.”

    –makes me think of narcissistic over-valuation of the anal stage, which is pretty common in the movie. (It actually reminds me of an article about a wild child who tried to keep control over her shit after she was rescued from her abusive home–what she did, to keep control of her shit, was to deoderize and hide it around her new room.)

    Of course, maybe this isn’t the actual center of the movie, but only one element since it’s only Chad the Body telling Osbourne the Brain what to think and not making a very convincing argument–like the old joke about which body part should be in charge ( ).

    Okay, one last thought: is the “burn” in “burn after reading” at all related to the fact that it’s a burned cd-rom that starts the chase?

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: “Not to do it again, I guess.”

      Your observation about the skulduggery of marital affairs being handled with more skill and effectiveness than the cloak-and-dagger matters of the world of espionage is excellent — and again, underlines the point they’re trying to make about “intelligence” being the first thing to go in our diseased society.

    • Todd says:

      Osbourne is definitely teamless — that’s what sets the plot into motion, his disenfranchisement. As he gets more and more taken away from him, he sets out to exact his pound of flesh, starting with his ex-teammates, and ending up with cutting out the movie’s “heart,” ie poor Ted.

    • Anonymous says:

      Osbourne Cox

      if Harry represents penile investment, why is Osbourne the guy named Cox?

      Osbourne is a Cox who doesn’t work. And it’s clear that he has inherited his wealth, expectations and even his career from his father — who, as a man in a wheelchair, is a classic symbol of impotence. I think that even his yacht, in which his wife cuckolds him with Harry (Harry!), originally belonged to his father.


      • samedietc says:

        Re: Osbourne Cox

        That seems right–the fact that he’s (plural) Cox might signal some over-compensation on his part (for the cuckolding and general (work) impotence).

  12. travisezell says:

    Those are some really interesting views. Some of it seems a little bit of a stretch… Pitt’s character as “nosy,” for one, but for the most part I really like this view of it. Also, as someone else pointed out, the “misinterpreting motives” and “hyperactive agency detection” (heh) all informs my initial reading of the story, as a parody or inside-out-twisting of the Espionage Thriller, where the characters all seem to expect the world to work like the James Bond or Jason Bourne (or at least a Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan) universes, but of course none of it does work that way. They’ve just been fed a false story and they’re all in their ways running with it. (This reading is admittedly a lot more superficial than yours, but still I think intended.)

    But at the end of the film I kind of felt a little cheated, a little let down, by a sort of mean-spirited laugh-at-them-not-with-them tone to the whole thing. It reminded me of people I’ve known, hilarious people, that don’t know how to tell a joke that isn’t at someone’s expense. I didn’t really think the Coens cared for any of these characters — I wish I could illustrate that impression but I’ve only seen it once and it was admittedly a while back — and the lack of empathy left me with a kind of cold feeling.

    As symbols, I think the story, the events, and the characters are all ingeniously laid out and moved about, but as a narrative, it felt cold. Which reminds me of your earlier comparison to Kubrick, and opinions on Hudsucker and Raising Arizona, if memory serves.

    So it still puts them in good company, but I do think Burn After Reading lacks the kind of warmth that made The Big Lebowski or Fargo (to name a couple) really great.

    • Todd says:

      It’s definitely a colder movie than Lebowski, and a more brutally cynical movie than Fargo, which had a tiny ray of sunshine within it — the “real people” of Burn aren’t sweet-natured shlubs, they’re brain-dead morons with nothing but clumsy blackmail in mind.

  13. curt_holman says:

    “Not to do it again, I guess.”

    None of this occurred to be about Burn After Reading, but the great thing about the Coen Brothers is that their films generally reward and support multiple interpretations.

    I talked to a fellow movie reviewer afterward who thought it was the equivalent of the Coens doing a “Seinfeld” episode, and know others who had similar feelings.

    I liked it a lot more than that, and my take on it is that it’s about how real spies and intelligence operatives aren’t nearly as good as subterfuge and spying (what John LeCarre would call “tradecraft”) than civilians are in matters of dating, sex, marriage and divorce. There are two scenes in which characters are under surveillance and confront the strangers: Cox gets served (with divorce papers, I think) at the men’s club, and Harry discovers that his wife’s lawyer has a detective following him. The scene when Harry goes to the Home Depot store has the music and visual style of something like The Parallax View, but it turns out he’s just buying stuff for his sex machine. Harry lies outrageously and pretends to be, more or less, an international man of mystery in order to bed more women. Linda wants to create a whole new body, almost like an agents “cover identity.”

    To me the climax of the movie comes in the park when Linda reveals to Harry her connection to Chad. Harry’s shocked response? “WHO ARE YOU?!!!” She has reinvented herself so well, the man she loves doesn’t recognize her.

    And in that same moment, everyone around Harry looks like a spy, as if his “international man of mystery” fantasy has consumed his “real” life.

    Incidentally, a friend of mine wondered if the way Clooney says ‘WHO ARE YOU?” (was he pointing his finger? His mouth wide?) was an homage to that terrifying shot of Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  14. curt_holman says:

    Re: “Not to do it again, I guess.”

    High praise indeed coming from you. Thanks.

    I think you’re onto something about Burn After Reading presenting a dichotomy or separation between “intelligence” and “bodies.” Isn’t the gym called “Hard Bodies,” or something like that? Cox seems like an intellect who’s separated from his body, and most of the rest seem like bodies separated from their intellects. Harry’s obsession with running matches the gym employees’ own obsessions with working out.

    I wonder where the Coens live full-time. Even though Burn After Reading takes place in D.C., it seems like it could easily be an L.A. story.

  15. Anonymous says:

    We’re talking about a mind/body/sex split.

    Sex resolves the mind/body split — or should.

    In this case, Harry, as you point out, is also obsessed with running (the body), which we see him do after sex. And he shows a lot of inventiveness (the mind) in pursuit of sex. So perhaps he’s a better-integrated person, or at least a metaphor, than I thought at first.

    But no. Now that I think about it, although Harry built the dildo chair, it’s not of his own design — he copied it from an ad in the back of a skin magazine. (He’s a do-it-yourselfer, proud of building the ultimate contraption for self-gratification.) And he certainly isn’t terribly creative in his skirt-chasing, just highly motivated.

    Never mind.


  16. I really enjoyed this film too (though I saw it the night it opened so I’m trying to remember bits and pieces).

    One point that hasn’t been mentioned is that Katie Cox seems to be the only character who comes out a winner in all of this. Granted, she wasn’t one of the four core (Osbourne, Linda, Harry and Chad) so she wasn’t involved in all central conflicts, she did play a part in it’s outcome.

    Also, am I the only one who felt odd seeing Harry (Clooney) and Katie (Swinton) in sexual scenes so soon after “Michael Clayton”?

  17. charlesglobe says:

    The music

    One of the funniest things about the movie to me was the music. It felt almost like music commissioned for “No Country for Old Men,” deemed hilariously dramatic and only brought back to use as comedy. It put us into the characters minds, believing they are in a spy movie.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: The music

      When I went to see it, the theater was also playing that Don Cheadle film TRAITOR. When the film started, and that music came on, my heart sank. Oh shit, I’m in the wrong auditorium, I’m missing the movie….

      — Kent M. Beeson

    • Anonymous says:

      Double Take

      Saw this twice. The first time I didn’t think too much of it except for Malkovich’s great, hysterical performance (& J.K. Simmons’ dead pan brilliance.) I went back the next day to see it again because, being this was a Coen Bros. film, I was pretty sure I missed something and I did. I (now) think this is one of the Coen’s best/greatest films. Besides being gut-busting funny, it is the best representation of Bush era government ineptitude/careless attitude to date (& they never mention Bush. They don’t have to.) “What did we learn here?”

      – Bob

  18. greyaenigma says:

    You think you’re late, I just saw this today.

    I’m interested that so many people thought it was so hilarious. There were a couple of outright funny scenes, and most of those were in the trailer. My audience only laughed a few times. This is not a complaint about the movie, but I was misled but the advertising.

    Poor, poor Ted. I think he’s the only one I could identify with.

    Harry is trying to turn his sexual addiction into a moneymaking scheme

    What, the chair? I thought he was honestly building it as a present for his wife, who he loved honestly (despite being a terrible, terrible husband in many ways) If not, why did he destroy the chair with such a passion when he found out about the divorce? It seemed to me that he had no motive other than to have as much sex as possible.