Burn After Reading review

The Coens take a break in a breathless blackmail farce…

Why you can trust GamesRadar+ Our experts review games, movies and tech over countless hours, so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about our reviews policy.

“Intelligence is relative,” runs the tagline for Burn After Reading. So is impact. If this were the work of some self-taught young tyro, there’d be headlines cheerleading its wit and zip; its slippery subversiveness and antic spirit. As it is, coming from the Coen brothers, off the back of a masterpiece, it feels a bit slight. A bit knocked-off. Not as good as you’d expect, basically.

But then, Joel and Ethan aren’t ones for playing to expectation. From the get-go they’ve wryly eluded the pigeonholers. So their neo-noir bow Blood Simple was chased by the live-action Looney Tunery of Raising Arizona; while wintry, cautionary noir Fargo gave way to The Big Lebowski’s sun-baked, acid-fried goosing of Raymond Chandler. Same genre, different states of mind. Skipping into UK cinemas a mere nine months after No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading stokes hopes of pulling off another of the bros’ tricksy, ballsy, serious-to-silly one-twos. Not to be, alas. Don’t bank on the consistent, kaleidoscopic inspiration of Arizona or Lebowski. Rather, Reading is of a piece with that worrying pre-No Country phase where the siblings were in danger of becoming slapstuck: Intolerable Cruelty, the Ladykillers remake.

As in those water-treaders, the presence of A-listers adds a certain smugness to the sense of goofing off. Especially when it’s golden boys George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Mind you, the Ocean’s duo make an effort to shed some sheen in playing such bumbling, uncool characters. Clooney is Harry Pfarrer, a married federal marshal with a cheese allergy and an unhealthy habit of bedding women he meets online – including loser-in-love Linda Litze (Frances McDormand), a fitness centre worker obsessed with undergoing plastic surgeries she can ill afford. Litze works with Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer – a knucklehead with nothing on his mind except perhaps the wackiest hairdo the actor’s worn since Johnny Suede in ’91.

The macguffin gluing these oddballs – and the ramshackle narrative – together is a disc that contains the combustible memoirs of Osborne Cox ( John Malkovich), a freshly fired CIA analyst unhappily wed to another of Harry’s shag-mates, Katie (Tilda Swinton). When the disc falls into Linda and Chad’s hands, their thoughts turn to blackmail… or something like it, the duo’s inept scheming destined to end in disaster (“No good can come of this…” frets Linda’s smitten boss Ted, played by Richard Jenkins). So… any Fargo-esque pathos as things unravel? Nope. Not a bean. Burn After Reading is one big joke – and that’s all it’s meant to be. It’s not a film about nothing; it’s about delusion, deceit, bad decisions, sheer fucking human idiocy. Equally, though, it’s no more than a lark, a wheeze, a rampant piss-take; the sly mockery of Hollywood mores kicking in with the opening titles tapped across the screen in spy thriller-style computer type.

Just like Brad’s barnet, Burn After Reading has some outstanding comic highlights – many of them courtesy of Pitt himself. Loose-limbed and absent-minded, his hyper performance stays the right side of mannered. It’s a shame the same can’t be said of Clooney, who over-hams the head-bobbing and eye-popping (though you’ll pull a comedy shock-face yourself when he unveils his obscenely amusing secret basement project). But those seeking subtlety need only look to JK Simmons, twig-dry as a blissfully ignorant CIA boss who cadges the script’s tell-tell signature line: “Report back to me when it all makes sense.”

Funny guy. But the problem with all these characters is that they’re self-absorbed without self-awareness, which makes them easy to laugh at but hard to love (unlike, say, The Dude). Finding distraction in the visuals proves tough, too. Set in Washington DC but lensed mainly in New York, this is the most functional and anonymous-looking of all the sibs’ pics. Like we said though, it’s all relative. Burn After Reading may emerge free of consequence, but it’s also without flab, filler or faffing, its trim 96 mins a bit of a blessing after the Apatow-instigated trend for bloated running times. And with ’08 hardly shaping up as a vintage year for the Holly-com, its sleek combo of zigzag plotting, nimble pratfalls and random, blithe zaniness makes it burn all the brighter.

Sam Ashurst is a London-based film maker, journalist, and podcast host. He's the director of Frankenstein's Creature, A Little More Flesh + A Little More Flesh 2, and co-hosts the Arrow Podcast. His words have appeared on HuffPost, MSN, The Independent, Yahoo, Cosmopolitan, and many more, as well as of course for us here at GamesRadar+.