Burn After Reading Movie Poster Image

Burn After Reading

Quirky, violent Coen comedy isn't meant for kids.
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Release Year: 2008
  • Running Time: 96 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Everyone in the movie is a liar, pursuing selfish ends. Husbands and wives cheat on each other; one man trolls online dating sites for sex partners and then lies shamelessly to get them into bed; another hides the fact that he's been fired; and two other people try to pass themselves off as spies to sell stolen documents. Even the characters who initially seem like good people end up displaying their darker, pettier side.


Several moments of violence -- involving fists, guns, knives, and an axe -- pop up so suddenly that they're quite startling. The fights are realistic, bloody, and gory. People are killed, their bodies disposed of. Some characters also use cars as weapons, intentionally ramming into other vehicles.


Some scenes show people having sex -- sound effects, but no nudity. The couples are shown talking in bed afterward, presumably naked under the covers. One character builds an elaborate sex chair with an extremely crass sexual accessory, which he shows off to a date.


Plenty of swearing, including "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and more. Every character's vocabulary is liberally peppered with curses.


Some brands of alcohol are referred to by name and/or shown on screen. Several characters' cars are shown repeatedly, including their logos. One fitness-obsessed man is insulted when his fancy bike is described as a "Schwinn." He's also practically glued to his iPod. There are mentions of PCs, Macs, and Gatorade, as well as logos for Safeway, 7-Eleven, and Tropicana.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Osborne Cox drinks often, and some scenes show him carefully preparing his beverages. In several scenes, he's clearly drunk. A coworker says Cox has a drinking problem, sending him into a rage.

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.

Families can talk 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?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:September 11, 2008
DVD/Streaming release date:December 21, 2008
Cast:Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney
Directors:Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Studio:Focus Features
Run time:96 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

This review of Burn After Reading was written by

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are conducted by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Great handpicked alternatives

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Teen, 14 years old Written byStevie111 June 2, 2012

Dark Comedy has loads of language

Constant language fills this comedy. There's some sexual content, fairly crude, but not often at all. Same with violence, minimal, but disturbing. If you don't mind language, 14+ should be fine
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Parent of a 6 and 8 year old Written byYBNormal January 7, 2009
Teen, 17 years old Written bywhitesoxbuff March 9, 2010
WARNING THIS MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS: Good Movie. As much as I liked Brad Pitt the scene where he got shot was the best part. But it got boring after that
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking