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Movie Review

Burn After Reading

MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

Reviewed by: Misty Wagner

Extremely Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Crime, Drama, Comedy
1 hr. 36 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
September 12, 2008 (2,300 theaters)
DVD release: December 23, 2008
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Relevant Issues
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What does the Bible say about adultery? Answer

Anger in the Bible

About murder in the Bible

Spies in the Bible

Featuring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons, Dermot Mulroney, more »
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producer: Tim Bevan, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Eric Fellner, Robert Graf
Distributor: Focus Features

“Intelligence is relative.”

Throughout the course of “Burn After Reading” I kept asking myself how I would even begin to review this film. I sat, waiting for a plot to emerge in some way which would easily fit into a neat little summary. That never happened… In fact, as the characters on the screen became more twisted, things only complicated more.

“Burn After Reading” is a very dark comedy by the Coen Brothers (“No Country For Old Men,” “Fargo”) and is brimming over with performances of an all star cast. Perhaps this movie is similar to one of those uniquely complicated pieces of art work in a sophisticated and eclectic gallery, where the very purpose and meaning of the piece changes from each admirer. From my perspective, this is a tale of greed—financial greed, sexual greed, greed of alcoholic proportions… There are five main characters. Characters whose lives don’t all move about in the same circles. Somehow though, through events of no significant proportions, the lives of each of them are altered unspeakably, changing the course of their lives from there on out.

Osborne Cox, (John Malkovich) is an alcoholic and recently out of work government employee, when he finds himself the target of a blackmail scheme by two gym employees Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke. (Brad Pitt And Francis Mcdormand) Meanwhile, Osborne’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an adulterous affair with womanizing sex addict Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). The choices that each character makes, to only further their own greed, only serves to hurt themselves and everyone else.


Profanity in this film is incredibly heavy, from the very beginning.

Sex is a central theme in the film. Though I don’t remember any nudity, there are simulated sex scenes and sexual dialog consistently throughout the course of the movie.

There are a few instances of violence, one which is shockingly graphic because it is unexpected, though the scene is brief.

There is no value put on love or marriage, and very little value placed on a life. Both of those issues did not sit well with me, at all. And that is, sadly, just the tip of offenses…

The performances of Brad Pitt and George Clooney would easily be highlights to this movie. Many of the laughs are derived from their lines or expressions. Even so, had it not been for the string of a-list actors, this film would be even weaker than it already is. Certainly not one of the best films the Coen brothers have done. By now, most people who flock to the theaters to see a Coen brother’s film already know what to expect in regards to offensive material. Making as much sense as any other film of theirs does though, this one holds true to their creative direction and clever scene shots and camera angles. As always, there is an unpredictability which keeps it’s audience engaged.

“Burn After Reading” is laugh out loud hilarious, but a majority of it’s funny is over the top—in your face offensive. Despite any laughs that I may have had, at the end of the film I honestly couldn’t find one redemptive quality. In good conscience I could never recommend this film. As I said though, this isn’t to say that it isn’t funny, just that it’s far more offensive than comical.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Extreme / Sex/Nudity: Extreme

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive—I saw this yesterday, and I loved it for it’s sheer randomness. The performances are all over the top and hilarious. John Malkovich was born to play this role. Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand are hilarious as two dim-witted gym instructors who get in over their heads when they find a CD that contains some really important, really CONFIDENTIAL information on it. It’s basically about how one stupid action can lead to several other actions of stupidity, that eventually lead to blackmail and, well, since this is a Coen Brothers film, extremely grotesque murder.

It’s not the best from the Brothers, but once again, the performances are all top-notch, the direction is tight, the score is perfect, the writing is to die for, and the cinematography is inventive!

Those of you who are opposed to graphic violence, sexual themes, and strong language should stay far away. I personally thought that the two “JFC” bombs near the end were a bit unnecessary. Oh, well.

Also, if you like spoon-fed resolutions where everything ties together at the end, then this is definitely not the film for you. The ending reminded me of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. You know. Abrupt. If that pissed you off in NO COUNTRY, then you’ll have the same reaction here.

Great film! Recommended!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Adam Renkovish, age 26
Positive—This movie was crazy. Brad Pitt was funny in it—he played a brainless nut, yet with a personality that won you over. It truly made me like Brad Pitt once again as I hadn’t really enjoyed to much of what he has done lately. He was a bit of clown in his acting which I don’t think I have seen before. Francis McDormand also plays a nut obsessed with improving her body, won’t go into that. George Clooney played his role well as a creep. Tilda Swinton play her part well too as a looking out for herself type part. They were all self absorbed. The movie was much better than I had anticipated as far as acting and entertainment. The content is extremely offensive and you have to understand that this movie is just a “crazy” movie, silly, and if you do get offended easily, it will offend you. There is nothing Christian in this movie.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Donnam, age 52
Positive—This is a film that conservative Christians will not like very much, as it is filled with cussing, greed, indiscriminate sex, betrayal, self absorption, venality and the conniving world of Washington, particularly the sleek secretive and manipulative world of the CIA. All of this is depicted as laughably venal and grotesque in the Coen Brothers manner, with great performances from excellent actors. The only decent character has left the Orthodox priesthood for unspeakable reasons to become manager of a fitness gym (it’s unstated, but assumed, that there was nothing of value happening in the priesthood), is constantly frustrated that his decency gets him nowhere in the venal world that surrounds him, and gets hacked to death for his trouble. The point seems to be how unaware and befuddled the CIA higherups are trying to make sense of this comedy of venal errors, because they are so immersed in that world themselves. You can’t say there is anything morally offensive about this depiction of this sort of life, in fact, it is a fairly Christian message, but as your reviewers note, the film doesn’t do a lot to inspire people make the world better.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Stanley Hirtle, age 63 (USA)
Neutral—Some of the movie content was funny, and the camera work was very clever, but there are a few moral issues that Christian moviegoers need to know about. First of all, there is heavy cursing in the movie. The f-word was used several times during the beginning and sprinkled throughout the movie, along with some other distasteful words. Second, at one point in the movie Harry Pfaffer (George Clooney) unveils a machine that he built. It is of a very sexual nature and inappropriate for children to see. Third, at another point in the movie Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is shown naked in bed with a man on top of her. The camera work does not show anything that doesn’t need to be seen, but it is such that you might as well be seeing it. There were other issues but the aforementioned were the most prevalent in my mind. Please use discretion regarding the viewing of this film.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Kathryn Sutherland, age 22
Negative—I took the time to read another review before I saw this. It said that there were some four-letter words in there and some sexual suggestions in it, but I didn’t get the sense that anything was overt.

Let me tell you now. It’s just not worth it.
The amount of cussing was so excessive that it was even distracting from the rest of the movie.

The sexual theme (it basically revolves around a matrix of people having affairs), was overt. While there was no nudity, the suggestion was enough to be unnecessary.

The violence was jarring and unexpected, for sure. Especially for a comedy, it takes those moments that you would expect the camera to turn away and the audience to make inferences, and completely does the opposite. It’s quite grotesque.

And the plot? It was really pretty poor. I was actually holding out some high hopes for the Coen brothers, but honestly was sadly disappointed. I understand that it is a comedy, but the lack of closure and something solid was disappointing.

For Christians, I’m going to go ahead and say that this is definitely a movie to stay away from. There’s no reason to go see it for it’s high-cinematic quality or even for it’s comedy (there were maybe 2 or 3 kinda funny parts). The cussing, sexual theme, and violence make it FAR from family-friendly, and I pray that we all will search our hearts and ask ourselves if we want to compromise our spirit and walk with God for a few minutes of this.

As a Christian, and someone who has seen it, I would say that it’s not.
Overall, especially given the actors, it could have been much better if it just didn’t have all of the nasty stuff.
God bless you all!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 2½
—Austin, age 19
Negative—The Coen brothers odd ball humor has increasingly become more and more depraved and sick with time. This movie is supposed to a comedy of errors. I do not agree that it is complicated, because there is not supposed to be a point. The graphic violence, sex, and non-stop barrage of F-words is certainly enough to condemn the movie by itself but even if you saw a cleaned up version, the film never develops into anything but a vastly depressing “comedy” of errors. Yes, Brad Pitt's antics were cute, but you saw that in the commercials so spare yourself a thoroughly unpleasant evening and stay home with your family.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 2
—David C, age Old
Negative—I completely agree with the reviewer on this film. It definitely fits the “extremely offensive” label to Biblical values. And yes, I am asking myself why I stayed through it. To say my nephew is not a believer and to say we have different “tastes” in movies is an understatement and I am always looking for ways to connect with him. I had seen the previews in the theater, which made it seem just like a clean funny movie, and like the chemistry between Brad Pit and George Clooney and thought this would be one we could see together. I “assumed” it was PG-13 so didn’t check it out before making a date with my nephew to see it. I think that is why I stayed.
Marriage is completely shown as having no value and in fact just assumes that EVERYONE will get divorced and that having affairs is to be expected and having sex after just having met someone through an internet dating service and sharing a meal, even if you didn’t like the person, was just normal. In fact, life is shown as not having any value.
Please don’t waste your money or more importantly your purity by the fact that you’ll have these images in your brain afterwards. There was no redeeming quality in the movie or ANYTHING to emulate. If there was a verse to sum up this movie it would be Judges 21:25 '…everyone did as he saw fit. '-in other word whatever they wanted without any fear of God.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Elizabeth, age 47
Negative—I’ll make this real simple. About an hour into this movie, there is a scene where George Clooney unveils a machine he’s built. It is designed for a female to fornicate. It shows a simulated male organ that bobs up and down.
First movie I’ve walked out of in 15 years.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3
—Kevin Lentsch, age 41
Negative—If I have to say anything positive about this film, I would say that I appreciated the cinematography. It seems the movie was filmed in the DC/Maryland area, and it painted a very pretty picture of that. As I seem to remember it was filmed in the fall, which is a beautiful time of year for that region.

The commercial trailers for this film are very misleading. They portray it as a comedy. Except for a couple of brief scenes with David Rasche and J.K. Simmons (who play a CIA officer and his superior), which were hilarious because of the brilliance of the actors and how they point out the ridiculousness of the situation at hand, it is anything but funny. I’m sorry, but no wacky haircut is going to make Brad Pitt's character funny in this film. To me, each scene revealed the moral bankruptcy or idiocy of each character as a complete tragedy rather than a humorous anecdote.

The very opening scene contains a barrage of the “F” word, and continues to be John Malkovich's drunken MO throughout the film. Brad Pitt's character continually spews the “S” word. Other characters demonstrate the tragedy of sexual deviancy and addiction.

Come to think of it, though, without all the over-the-top pervasive cursing and vulgar innuendos, there would be no film. They are the film. I kept thinking to myself throughout the film that I should just get up and leave, but I kept thinking, “It’s got to get better, it’s got to get better”. Plus, I was stuck in the middle of the aisle and had three friends with me. In the end, they were all equally appalled at the film. We all felt like we had wasted our money and had been robbed of 97 minutes of our valuable lives just to see something that happens around us every day… and just isn’t funny.

'What did we learn? Not to do that again!'
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Steve, age 40
Negative—Ugh. I walked out of the film it was just that bad. I always enjoy Clooney and Pitt, but this one was not worth the effort.
All the F-words and THAT machine Clooney built was sooooo offensive!
Don’t even bother to rent this piece of trash. As one poster stated the funniest Brad Pitt parts are shown in the commercial.
BTW, Tilda Swinton never, ever looks feminine to me no matter what role she plays and I could not envision her and Clooney as a couple.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3½
—Reba, age 40+
Negative—I saw this movie last night, and I have to agree with most of the negative comments given here above. Matter of fact, I read the negative comments out here before going to see the movie—but, decided (eventually) to go and see it anyway because I know from my experience that tastes differ, and if someone didn’t like something it doesn’t mean you wouldn’t either…

Anyway, I saw the movie, and came to understand that the negative comments and criticism were grounded and based.
The Critic of this site is one of the very few, who said truths about the film, and for that, I truly thank him for his forewarnings.

I didn’t go to see the movie to get a moral lesson out of it, as I know what to expect from a Coen Brothers’s film (and morality is the last thing you could expect from their films…), so to tell you the truth? I was not surprised that there is no morality existent in the movie. Morality is something I expect to learn from God and God’s chosen—not from Coen Brother’s films (any for that matter).

What I was appalled by is the terrible violence in the film. And it’s not even exactly that—what I am truly appalled by is the fact that such films, while immoral, contain such cruelty and lack of heart—which are—very sadly indeed—what “passes as entertainment” and get critical praise and accolades (i.e. “No Country”)!!
I mean, people: Come on. While risking being “preachy” a little, what exactly does that say about us as spectators. What does that say about the many critics, who mass audiences “listen” to?

Anything that comes from the Coen Brothers, when rampant with cruelty, violence and immorality is hailed by Critics as “some kind of lofty cinema,” and when audiences don’t like the film and don’t join the “praise the new Coen film” wagon—it’s often implied as if those who disagree, simply “don’t get it,” i.e. don’t understand the “dark humor.”

You know, I’ve often found myself wondering: In Antiquity, when innocent people (many among them Christians) were butchered in the Coliseum in Rome, was that considered “only dark humor”?
The spectators (audience, viewers) who went to see that cruelty… what was their contribution to those terrible events in the Coliseum?
There were probably some critics back then, who found the whole spectacle of killing innocents in the Roman Coliseum, as “dark humored entertainment,” am I correct?

Where do we put the line on what should be considered “entertainment” and what not? Who is to put this line?
Is it responsible of critics to hail movies where such cruelty and killing men with hatchets and shooting them, is considered as “entertainment”?
What are we doing, as audiences, by going to see such films?

“No Country” getting “Best Picture” is the lowest form the Movie industry has ever stumbled to, in my opinion. And now this new film, getting praise and hail from critics, continues and baffle and alarm me.

I think we need to evaluate, seriously, what it is that passes as “entertainment” nowadays, and how are we (maybe) contributing to that. For our own sakes.
I know I went to see this movie ('Burn after Reading'), and I maybe shouldn’t have, but what I still find more “frightening” is the thought, that so many people consider these kind of films to be 'valid entertainment'…

Ooof!! (shudders…)
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Solomon Ashtamkar, age 33
Negative—I have to say that I have not been so shocked by a movie in quite awhile. My husband and I didn’t know anything about the movie before we went to see it, all we knew was that there were good actors in it.

I felt like I needed to clean my eyes and ears out after I saw this. Do the writers of this movie not know how to speak proper english; all they seemed to know how to say was profanity.

Also, a couple of the scenes were done in such a graphic way that it leaves you with that awful kicked in the gut sort of feeling. My husband walked out 10 minutes before the ending; he couldn’t take anymore of the sickness of this film. The actors should be ashamed of themselves for lowering their standards. The writers and directors should also be ashamed for allowing this disaster to hit theatres.

Is this what the world is coming to? Is this the future of movies if people find this sort of thing funny? God have mercy on the future generations if this is where we’re at now!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3
—Anonymous, age 33
Comments from non-viewers
Here is a thought… If you the Spirit of God is dwelling in you richly, why would you waste anytime immersing yourself in the filth of this world? Yes, I have watched a lot of garbage movies in the past, I won’t be a hypocrite, I’m not perfect, only God is. I’m just saying that If you read the Bible, it is pretty clear that we need to stay away from this garbage, because it only pollutes us. If your watching a movie, and it makes you uncomfortable because of sex, violence, cursing, or blaspheming God’s name, consider getting up and leaving. I’m tired of paying $12 dollars of God’s money to have sewage dumped on my soul, how about you?
—Jim Cowan, age 39 (USA)