A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this quirky comic thriller has much in common with others in the Coen brothers' canon: It's very funny and very violent. There's plenty of sex (though not much nudity) and swearing ("f--k"s galore), and characters drink, like, manipulate, and whatever else they need to do to promote their own selfish interests. But teens may still want to see it, both because it stars Brad Pitt and George Clooney and because so many of the Coens' previous comedies have become cult favorites (Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski).
What's the story?
Forced to quit his CIA analyst job, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) vows to write his memoirs -- in between shots of whatever he's drinking at the moment. His chilly wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), can't be bothered to be sympathetic; she's too busy sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married federal marshal who's into infidelity, jogging, and hardwood floors. Then Osborne's manifesto-in-progress -- and a bunch of other personal data -- is purloined, falling into the hands of dim-bulb gym trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and his coworker Linda Litzky (Frances McDormand), who desperately yearns for plastic surgery. Linda thinks the manuscript (and, ostensibly, its secrets) could be her ticket to beauty-ville, leading her and Chad down a very messy road. And they're not the only ones on the path, either.
Is it any good?
Wickedly funny and plainly outrageous, BURN AFTER READING gleefully takes potshots at spy films, making a big deal out of nothing, really. The farce begins with the opening credits' satellite pictures and sinister footfalls and doesn't let up from there. In the Coens' zany universe, nothing is sacred -- not marriage, not friendship, not even the CIA. Violence punctuates the jokes (you'll laugh; you can't help it). The brothers have assembled an incomparable cast, mixing up a potent dark comedy potion. Start with Pitt (as funny as he's ever been), then add a dash of Swinton, a swig of Clooney, and plenty of Malkovich for good measure. But it's really McDormand who owns the film; Linda is so desperate and yet so likeable that the madness she cooks up is almost palatable.
Still, Burn After Reading is no Fargo. For all its cheek, it's not actually all that brazen. It doesn't push the envelope far enough -- at least for a Coen brothers movie. It lacks a certain amount inspiration and, well, to paraphrase one character, a point. Not that having a point is a must. But when characters are expended as blithely as they are here, you can't help asking that question. Then again, maybe we don't always need a reason to laugh out loud.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether any of the characters in the movie can be considered role models. What motivates them to behave the way they do? What do they have in common with characters in other Coen brothers movies? How does the movie as a whole stack up against the Coens' other films? Families can also discuss how a mountain is made out of a molehill in the movie. How does the situation escalate so quickly? Teens: Have you ever found yourself in circumstances that spun out of control? What did you do?
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