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Burn After Reading (2008)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 12/21/2008

All Ratings out of
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/20/2008

I seriously doubt that there's ever been a review for a film by Joel and Ethan Coen (AKA The Coen Brothers) which didn't contain words such as "weird", "quirky", or "original" and this one won't be any different. Beginning with their feature film debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, The Coens have shown a gift for taking seemingly normal or average stories and putting a twist on them so that the viewer is thrown off guard. Even when the story is somewhat straightforward, there's always something a little "off". This has worked for them in the past, and garnered them accolades and attention. But, with their latest feature, Burn After Reading, the film's askew nature may be a bit too much.

Burn After Reading opens with CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) losing his job (allegedly for alcoholism). Despite the fact that his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is upset by this new, Osbourne decides that he will open a consulting agency and begin writing his memoirs. We learn that the Cox's are friends with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who works for the treasury department, and his wife, Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), a children's book author. When Sandy has to go away on a book tour, George begins to serial date. Meanwhile, the employees of Hardbodies gym find a computer disc in the locker room and learn that it's loaded with government data. Employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who can't get the funding for the plastic surgery which she wants, decides that she will sell the disc. She recruits fellow employee and health nut Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) to help her. Soon, the lives of all of these people will collide in a mass of lies, scandals, sex, and secrets. What began a seemingly innocent game of blackmail and desire will end in death for some of the characters.

The Coens have stated that they wrote Burn After Reading while also writing No Country For Old Men. This isn't all that surprising. Their Oscar-winning (and overrated) No Country For Old Men was such a bleak and depressing film, it would only seem natural that they would want to turn to some lighter fare in order to balance things out. However, they seem to have encountered some difficulty in maintaining this dichotomy, as the resulting script for Burn After Reading is an odd mixture of light and dark which plays like Enemy of the State meets Three's Company.

In short, Burn After Reading is like getting two movies in one. On the one hand, we have an espionage film which examines Washington insiders and the way in which secrets are lost and tracked in our nation's capital. Everywoman Linda feels that she is in possession of very powerful documents and she's willing to sell them to the highest bidder. Osbourne wants to get his hands on them, and his former superiors at the CIA track all of the back and forth. The movie never becomes an action movie per se, but there is some suspense as we watch the various players try to out-maneuver one another.

On the other hand, Burn After Reading wants to be a farce-like romp. There is a great deal of sex and scandal here, as the various characters end up pairing off in surprising ways. Everyone is having sex behind everyone's back here. There are assumptions and mistaken identities aplenty, and the film's greatest shock comes not one a murder which takes place about half way through (although, that scene is very shocking), but when one of the character's sexual predilections is revealed. It's often hard to tell if Clooney's character is being serious, and Pitt's incredibly goofy character, who can't stop moving and uses the word "shit" to replace other nouns, seems to be in a different movie altogether.

At this point in their career, I think that it would be impossible for The Coens to make a truly bad movie and Burn After Reading certainly doesn't fall into that category. But, given the amount of talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, the movie is disappointing. There are some funny moments, and, as noted above, two truly unexpected and shocking moments, but the movie never feels like its the sum of its parts. The intrigue and comedy never gel and audiences will most likely wished to have seen either one movie or the other. Personally, I wanted to see the movie which Brad Pitt was in.

Burn After Reading brings a wedge to DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is fairly sharp and clear, showing very slight grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look good and the image is never too bright or dark. The detail level is acceptable, and there's no overt artifacting or video noise. The DVD contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good and provide nice stereo separation. The surround effects are passable and come into play during street scenes and a car chase. However, subwoofer effects are hard to come by here.

The Burn After Reading DVD contains only three extras. "Finding the Burn" (5 minutes) is a "making of" featurette which contains comments from the Coens and the cast. The Coens discuss their views on the film and the actors talk about their characters. The funny thing here is that even the Coens don't know how to categorize the film. "DC Insiders Run Amuck" (12 minutes) is simply a continuation of the first featurette, with more of an emphasis on the actors. We get some on-set footage of the actors at work, and cast divulge what it was like to work with one another. There's a lot of focus on Pitt's goofball character. This piece also looks at the look of the film. In "Welcome Back George" (3 minutes), the Coens and Clooney talk about the actor's involvement in the film and how the Coens love to work with Clooney (and his "Trilogy of Idiots").

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has also brought Burn After Reading to Blu-ray Disc. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 33 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, but in an odd switch from what we normally see, the level of grain is actually higher here than on the DVD. In scenes where the background is a light color, the grain is quite obvious. There are no notable defects from the source material. The colors look very good, and the film's natural look works well. The image is well-balanced and the action is always visible. The level of detail is very good, and exterior shots show a nice amount of depth. The Disc offers a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.7 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are very good, and in scenes such as the Osbourne's party or the gym, we can hear everything that's going on around the characters. These same scenes, and the car chase, bring home some nice surround effects as well. The movie doesn't offer a great number of opportunities for subwoofer effects, but the few which are here are acceptable.

The Blu-ray Disc contains the same extras as the DVD.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long