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Report back to me when... I don't know... when it makes sense.
Burn After Reading is a 2008 Black Comedy film written, produced and directed by The Coen Brothers, starring John Malkovich, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. Best summed up by critic James Christopher as a "brilliant joke about a staple Hollywood genre. It is a surreal satire about spy thrillers. Indeed, the spies and thrills don't add up at all. The plot is a total mistake. The characters are madly absurd. The film shouldn't work, but it does."
John Malkovich plays a CIA analyst who gets fired and starts writing his memoirs. When some gym employees find a copy of his memoirs on a CD, they think it's top secret information and hold it ransom. Chaos ensues.
This film contains examples of:
- The Alcoholic: And he absolutely will not recognize it.
- Alliterative Name: Linda Litzke.
- Ambiguously Gay: Chad.
- Audience Surrogate: The J.K. Simmons character. He's the only one in the movie to point out that basically nothing that has happened makes sense.
- Black Comedy
- Blatant Lies: "I didn't retire, I quit!"
- Blind Date
- Bloody Hilarious
"It's like these dates, and numbers, and dates, and numbers, and... numbers, and... I think that's the shit, man."
- Chekhov's Gun: Literally, with Harry's gun.
- The Chew Toy: Extreme examples with Ted and Chad. Just about everyone else in the plot is a self-centered sociopath who can't recognize they aren't the most important person in the universe. These two actually decide to help someone else. Think they'll be rewarded for their efforts, or even appreciated? Not in this plot...
- Cluster F-Bomb
- Comically Missing the Point: Most of the characters in the film. About everything.
- Cop Boyfriend: Sorta, with Clooney's character.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: The ending. Osborne's and Chad's comas/deaths are quickly covered up by the CIA.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Chad probably would've gotten away alive, if Harry hadn't left the door open when he took a shower.
- Dogged Nice Guy: Ted
- Fan Disservice: Seeing Linda and one of her mystery dates having sex. Do not want.
- Gambit Pileup
- Go Out with a Smile: Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt)
- Gym Bunny: Chad.
- Hypocritical Humor: Katie Cox hammers on a table to punctuate as she insists, "I don't hammer!"
- Idiot Plot: Done intentionally, not to mention hilariously.
- I Have Your Wife: Played with twice -- Chad and Linda try to pull this on Osbourne, whereupon Hilarity Ensues. Later, Linda tries to invoke this with the Russians to secure Chad's release not realizing that he's already been killed by Harry.
- Instant Death Bullet: Averted. The only time a character does die from a single bullet was shot in the head at point blank range. But Osborne and Ted both survive being shot, if only barely.
- Ivy League for Everyone
- Jerkass: Everyone.
- Well, not everyone. It's more like half of the cast, since there are those like the CIA director and Ted, the former of which is simply lost as to what's going on with the main characters, while the latter is a good, honest man who tries to act as a voice of reason. Then there's Chad, who putting it mildly, is simply too naive to know what he's getting involved in.
- Karma Houdini: Linda is quite possibly the most repulsive, selfish character in the entire movie who should have been charged at minimum with treason. She's also the only main character who comes out of the film with what she wanted.
- Course, she's not without her bright spots. She was genuinely concerned for Chad's whereabouts.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall:
Ted: It's not a phony-baloney Hollywood body.
- Love Makes You Dumb: The Hard Bodies Manager.
- Mock Guffin: The aforementioned "shit" is memoirs that were going to be published anyway. Or probably not published, as the movie suggests Malkovich's book isn't important or interesting enough that anyone would want to read it.
- Mood Whiplash: Just about every other scene.
- This was also the Coens' follow-up to No Country for Old Men, if you want to make this a meta-trope
- Mr. Exposition: J.K. Simmons and the associate who keeps him informed of the progression of events (calling it a plot would give it too much credit).
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Goes hand-in-hand with Karma Houdini. The most sympathetic and innately good characters get it worst in the end, while the most deplorable and morally bankrupt make out pretty well. To review: Linda, who is terribly shallow and greedy, and thinks only of her own benefit gets the CIA to pay for her surgeries, and suffers no negative consequences to her actions. Harry, who is a complete sleazebag who constantly cheats on his wife gets served divorce papers, but otherwise gets away scott free. Osbourne is an alcoholic Jerkass, but at least has good (if very misguided) intentions. He's in critical condition and not expected to live by the end of the movie. Chad, a sweet and sympathetic character who just tries to help, is shot and killed halfway through the film. Only Ted manages to avoid this reversal of karma, and even then, only partially. He is shot, but survives.
- Shot, but survived, only to be beaten to death in the middle of the street. All karma is reversed.
- Noodle Incident: Gym manager Ted's former career:
Ted: Let me tell you something; I wasn't always a manager at Hardbodies. (shows Linda a picture of himself in priest garb) Fourteen years, a Greek Orthodox priest. Congregation in Chevy Chase.
- Oblivious to Love: Ted's love for Linda.
- Oh Crap: Chad, when he hears Harry get something metal that clicks out of the drawer, then sees Harry's empty gun holster. You see him put two and two together just before Harry opens the closet and finds Chad inside.
- Only Sane Man: The director. It speaks to what kind of movie this is that he isn't even given a name.
- Also, Ted, the sole voice of reason amongst his colleagues at Hardbodies - and who is always ignored. Poor Ted.
- Precision S Strike: Chad, to the most hilarious effect.
"I thought you might be worried...about the security...of your shit."
- Properly Paranoid: Though not for the proper reason.
- Really Gets Around: Harry.
- Red Herring: The secret machine that Harry's working on. Possibly the best rug-pull of the entire film.
- Second Hand Storytelling: The ending. And it works.
- Shaggy Dog Story: About 2/5 of the cast.
CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: A different 2/5 of the cast. In fact, Linda is the only character to get anything out of the story, getting the CIA to pay for her surgeries
- Show Within a Show: Coming Up Daisy, a Romantic Comedy directed by Sam Raimi and based on a book by Cormac McCarthy.
- Also comes free with an Orphaned Punchline: "Would you come down from there?!" The laughs come from Laura and Harry getting a huge kick from it.
- Sick Sad World
- Spiritual Successor: The Big Lebowski was a send-up of the Raymond Chandler/noir staples in which buffoonish characters chase around a plot that really adds up to little, which is the point of the humor. Burn After Reading does the same thing, but with spy/political intrigue tropes.
- Strange Minds Think Alike: "She's a cold stuck-up bitch."
- The Reveal: The movie does a fantastic job building up anticipation about the what Harry had been constructing in his basement with all those tools. Turns out it's an sex-toy, namely a rocking chair that pushes a dildo up and down. Cue Crowning Moment of Funny.
- Too Dumb to Live: Everyone.
- Unnecessary Combat Roll: Harry after he has already killed Chad.
- Villain Protagonist: Osbourne Cox is, consistently throughout the film, the character who is wronged or victimized the most. Since all the other characters are screwing him over in one way or another (having an affair with his wife, blackmailing him), that makes them the villains...and the protagonists. May cross over with Hero Antagonist.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Several characters:
- Chad and Linda seem to think that they're in a cool spy film instead of a Black Comedy/farce.
- To a lesser extent, Harry, who thinks he's killed a spy, when in reality he's killed a gym employee. Then, he thinks it's some spy agency that's following him, when in reality it's a divorce agency. He thinks that Linda and Chad are part of a conspiracy, when in reality he's just a dumb gym employee and she just wants money for her plastic surgeries. He becomes paranoid, thinking he's the target of a conspiracy when none actually exists.
- Osbourne has a slightly subtler case. While there's no indication that his CD contains actual classified information or valuable secrets, Osbourne thinks his warmed-over ruminations about old news are the makings of a bestselling "Washington tell-all" book. He believes himself to be the wise Washington insider whose insights will be greatly valued, instead of the mid-level drunken asshole he really is.
- World of Snark