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


Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who quits his job at the agency after being demoted, ostensibly because of a drinking problem. He then decides to write a memoir about his life in the CIA. His wife, pediatrician Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), wants to divorce Osborne and, at the counsel of her divorce lawyer, she copies many of his personal and financial files off his computer and onto a compact disc. The lawyer's receptionist accidentally leaves the disc at Hardbodies, a health club. After her husband is served with divorce papers, Katie puts all of his belongings out in the street and changes the locks to keep him out of their house.

Two employees of the gym, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) obtain the disc from the gym's custodian. Seeing the content of the memoir, they assume that it is highly classified information. Initially Chad and Linda plan to give the disk back to Osborne hoping for a reward, intending to use the money to pay for Linda's cosmetic surgery. However, after a confusing phone conversation and fury on Osborne's part, their original plan descends into a blackmail attempt. Chad meets Osborne, who, aware that the "information" is merely his memoirs, refuses to pay and punches Chad in the nose. Linda decides to take the information to the Russian embassymarker. At the embassy, she hands the disk over to the Russians, promising that she will give more information afterward. Because they don't actually have any more information, they decide to break into Osborne's house to steal more.

Katie has been having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a womanizing Treasurymarker agent who's spooked by unknown people who have been following him. By chance he has recently met Linda online and begun an affair with her as well. Chad stakes out Osborne's house and breaks in when he sees Harry and Katie leave. Harry, however, returns later after a jogging excercise. Surprised at finding Chad lurking in a closet, Harry reflexively shoots him point blank in the face. 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 learn this from the spy the CIA has within the Russian Embassy. While observing their cases on Harry, Osborne and Linda, they are perplexed as to what is going on and decide to maintain observation until the situation "makes sense".

A few days later, paranoid since he killed Chad, Harry leaves Osborne's house after a brief argument with Katie. On his way out, he spots the man who has been trailing him for some time across the street and chases him down, thinking the man works for the CIA or some other government agency. Harry discovers instead 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 his home earlier).

The next morning, Harry and Linda meet in a park (Harry assuring her that he is over his paranoia) 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 Osborne's computer. But Osborne, finding that Katie has emptied their bank account, decides to break into his own house with a hatchet to take her liquor and jewelry. Finding Ted at his computer, Osborne shoots him. Ted survives and runs out of the house, but Osborne grabs the hatchet and kills him in the street.

The movie ends at CIA headquarters a few days later, where the official and his director are trying to sort out what happened: Chad and Ted are dead and Osborne is in a vegetative state after being shot by a CIA operative who had been tasked with observing him. The agent felt he could not stand by while Osborne was killing a man in broad daylight and took action. Harry and Linda have been arrested; Harry was caught trying to board a flight to Venezuelamarker (which is stated by the director not to have an extradition treaty with the US), but the director decides to let him go to get him out of their hair. Linda promises to remain silent if the CIA will finance her plastic surgery. The baffled CIA agents, not wishing to complicate the matter any further, agree to her terms and begin to wonder what they've learned from their case, if anything at all.



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

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. Mary Zophres served as costume designer, marking her eighth consecutive movie with the Coen brothers. 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 Japanesemarker Taiko drums. Joel Coen said they wanted the score to be "something big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless."

Burn After Reading is the first original screenplay penned by Joel and Ethan Coen since their 2001 movie, The Man Who Wasn't There. 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." Joel Coen said they intended to create a spy movie because "we hadn't done one before," 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.

Parts of the Burn screenplay were written while the Coens were also writing their adaptation of No Country for Old Men. 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." Ethan Coen said Pitt's character was partially inspired by a botched hair coloring job from a commercial the actor filmed. 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.

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. 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.

Principal filming took place around Brooklyn Heightsmarker, as the Coens wanted to stay in New York Citymarker to be with their families. Other scenes were filmed at Paramus, New Jerseymarker, Westchester County, New Yorkmarker and Washington, D.C.marker, particularly in the Georgetownmarker neighborhood. Filming began on August 27, 2007 and was completed on October 30, 2007. 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." 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.

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" and described Clooney and Pitt's characters as "dueling idiots." 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." 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." 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." 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.'"

During a fall movie preview, Entertainment Weekly wrote that John Malkovich "easily racks up the most laughs" 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 Parismarker. 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." 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." Swinton said of the dynamic, "I'm very happy to shout at him on screen. It's great fun."

Swinton described Burn After Reading as "a kind of monster caper movie," and said of the characters, "All of us are monsters – like, true monsters. It’s ridiculous." 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." 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." Pitt said the cast did little ad-libbing because the script was so tightly written and wove so many overlapping stories together. 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."

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 Sexmarker in New York City.


Critical reception

Reviews for the film were mostly positive, earning a 77% "Certified Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 213 reviews as of November 26, 2009. The film fared worse among "Top Critics," earning a 59% "Certified Fresh" rating out of 39 reviews. 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." 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," 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." 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." 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." 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. 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." 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."

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." McCarthy said the talented cast was forced to act like cartoon characters, described Carter Burwell's score as "uncustomarily overbearing" 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." Corliss complimented Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons for their brief supporting roles. 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." 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."

Leah Rozen, of People magazine, said the characters' "unrelenting dumbness and dim-witted behavior is at first amusing and enjoyable but eventually grows wearing." 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."

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."

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. 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, Empire magazine named it the third best film of 2008, and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly named it the seventh best film of 2008.

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. 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.

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.


  1. Chi, Paul. "Richard Jenkins feels the Burn with Brad Pitt." People, Vol. 70, No. 12, September 22, 2008, pg. 34.

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