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Burn After Reading

Updated on March 30th, 2019

A disk containing mysterious information from a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous and daft gym employees who attempt to sell it.

Osbourne Cox, a Balkan expert, resigned from the CIA because of a drinking problem, so he begins a memoir. His wife wants a divorce and expects her lover, Harry, a philandering State Department marshal, to leave his wife. A CD-ROM falls out of a gym bag at a Georgetown fitness center.

Two employees there try to turn it into cash: Linda, who wants money for cosmetic surgery, and Chad, an amiable goof. Information on the disc leads them to Osbourne who rejects their sales pitch; then they visit the Russian embassy. To sweeten the pot, they decide they need more of Osbourne’s secrets. Meanwhile, Linda’s boss likes her, and Harry’s wife leaves for a book tour. All roads lead to Osbourne’s house.

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Movie Reviews: “Burn After Reading

Movie Review: The New Republic

Well, no, not exactly. But the movie’s subsequent evolution was less radical than you might guess from the giddy, pop-inflected trailers that advertise it. Burn After Reading may be a comedy, but it is an exceptionally dark one, in which damaged, lonely souls collide but rarely make real contact. Although very funny, it is unexpectedly sad as well, a King of Comedy in which half a dozen Rupert Pupkins vie for attention.

Specifically: a sweet but needy and sex-addicted philanderer (George Clooney); a gym administrator and patron of online dating services who imagines a vast surgical makeover will help her find love (Frances McDormand); the boss who has love to offer her if only she would notice (Richard Jenkins); a personal trainer who combines the pompadour of a ‘50s crooner with the eager innocence of a Labrador Retriever (Brad Pitt); a self-important preppie furious at having been drummed out of the CIA (John Malkovich); and the caustic pediatrician wife who is preparing to leave him (Tilda Swinton).

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Movie Review: CSMonitor

The Coen Brothers’ peculiar brand of dry slapstick and cynicism is on full display in “Burn After Reading,” their much-anticipated follow-up to “No Country for Old Men” and starring, among others, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Tilda Swinton, and John Malkovich. That previous film, their finest, was also their most furiously human. For once in their career, they appeared to be making a movie about people whose lives really mattered to them. With “Burn After Reading,” a comedy thriller set in part in the high-stakes world of Washington secret intelligence, they are back in familiar Coen Brothers territory, which is to say it’s both heartless and hilarious.

Their movies may be an acquired taste for some but, overall, it’s a taste worth acquiring. “Burn After Reading” is a piffle, but it’s a savagely amusing one. Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, an ousted CIA analyst whose wife (Swinton) is having an affair with a married federal marshal (Clooney). When a disk containing Osbourne’s tell-all memoirs falls into the inept hands of two petty quasi-blackmailers (McDormand and Pitt, both hilarious) who work at the local Hardbodies Fitness Center, a chain of events ensues that ensures that just about everybody ends up burned, or worse. This is the loopiest star vehicle in ages.

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Movie Review: World

But where their other films made use of only a couple of these elements at a time, or played up some while downplaying others, this latest Coen project (rated R for language, violence, and sexuality) pushes them all for everything they’re worth.

When alcoholic CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job and decides to write a memoir, his cold-fish wife (Tilda Swinton) decides she’s had enough. Preparing to divorce Osborne in favor of her lover (George Clooney), she copies her husband’s memoir as well as all his financial information onto a disk for her lawyer. But when the disk winds up on the locker room floor of a popular gym, 40-ish, single assistant manager Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) thinks she’s finally found her ticket to true love and a new life. If only she and her co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) can blackmail ex-agent Cox with what Linda believes are highly classified government secrets, she can finally get enough plastic surgery to attract a good man.

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