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Report back to me when...I don't know...when it makes sense.
—The CIA Superior
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 Mc Dormand, and Brad Pitt. When CIA Analyst Osbourne Cox is forced into retirement, his wife wants to divorce him; however, when an employee at Hardbodies Gym, named Linda, finds a CD containing their financial information, she assumes that the CD contains sensitive information, and tries to hold it to ransom.Anything then resembling a plot promptly collapses inwards as a Love Dodecahedron starts to connect several people, most of whom become extremely paranoid or worse; in fact, the "plot" is best summed up by critic James Christopher, who points out the plot "...is a total mistake. The characters are madly absurd. The film shouldn't work, but it does."The film was so well-received it was nominated for the "Best Comedy or Musical" and "Best Lead Actress in a Comedy or Musical" Golden Globes, and was named the second-best film of 2008 by the A.V. Club's Noel Murray.
Better Than a Bare Bulb: Without the CIA scenes, the plot would look like a ridiculous, disconnected mess. Just having an omniscient observer acknowledge that the plot is a ridiculous, disconnected mess somehow manages to absolve this.
Bittersweet Ending / Downer Ending / No Ending: It's hard to really say how the film ends. The film just kind of stops, without any real warning, but it does quickly wrap up most of the main character's stories, and it doesn't end happily for most of them. On the other hand, a lot them were horrible people anyways, and whether certain characters got what they deserve is up for debate, but the more sympathetic characters got the worst punishments. However, because the film doesn't really have a plot, it could be argued that it doesn't really end to begin with. It's all a little confusing.
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...
Cleanup Crew: The reason the police never get involved is that the CIA are running around disposing of the bodies before the police can find them and drag a story into the open that might embarrass the Agency.
Cluster F-Bomb: Osbourne on multiple occasions, Harry when he discovers Chad in his closet after he accidentally shoots him, and the CIA Superior at the end of the movie. Chad is more fond of the S-word, and uses a Cluster S-Bomb after he discoveres a cd of Osbourne's memoirs, which he think is top secret information.
Osbourne: If you ever carried out your proposed threat, you would experience such a shitstorm of consequences, my friend! Your empty little head would be spinning faster than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle back there!
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.
Improvised Weapon: Ted shows surprising resourcefulness when held at gunpoint, hurling a paperweight at his attacker to throw off his aim and then running for the door with a bullet in his arm.
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.
Jerk Ass: 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.
Osbourne is married to Katie, has his memoirs stolen by Linda and kills Ted. Linda is friends with Chad, is oblivious to Ted's attraction and later goes out with Harry. Harry is married to Sandy, but having an affair with Linda and Katie, and kills Chad.
CIA Officer: They all seem to be sleeping with each other.
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.
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. Several 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, thinks only of her own benefit, and fully intends to sell national secrets to Russia for cash, 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 to Venezuela. Osbourne is an alcoholic JerkAss, but at least has good (if very misguided) intentions; he ends up in a coma and borderline braindead. Finally, the characters who get it worst are Chad and Ted, both sweet and sympathetic characters who just try to help; Chad is shot in the head in the second act, while Ted is shot in the arm and hacked to death with a hatchet.
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.
Oh Crap Smile: He manages to form one of these just before being shot in the head.
Palmer: We had his name on a hot list. CBP pulled him in. Don't know why he was trying to go to Venezuela. Director: You don't know. Palmer: No, sir. Director: We have no extradition with Venezuela. Palmer: Oh! So what should we do with him? Director: For fuck's sake, put him on the next flight to Venezuela!
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.
The Reveal: The movie does a fantastic job building up anticipation about what Harry had been secretly 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.
Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Linda sends Chad to Harry's house where he winds up dead, then sends Ted over to find what happened to Chad (who then ALSO ends up dead), then accidentally scares Harry into fleeing the country when she mentions Chad's disappearance in a conversation with him.
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.
Why We Are Bummed Communism Fell: Played with. After being fired, Cox tells his father (who also worked for the CIA) that he quit because after the Cold War it turned into a bureaucracy. However, later on, nobody associated with the CIA can understand why Linda would think to sell Cox's memoirs to the Russian embassy.
Osbourne Cox: "The Russians? Why the fuck would she go to the Russians? Why the Fuck!?!"
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, before assuming that a divorce firm observing him on behalf of his wife is a secret agency investigating the murder. It's then brought up again when, still under the assumption that Chad is spy, Harry assumes that Linda is looking for him on behalf of his agency (and that several strangers in the park are keeping an eye on them too).
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.