Follow TV Tropes


Film / Burn After Reading

Go To

"Report back to me when... I don't know... when it makes sense."
The CIA Superior

Burn After Reading is a 2008 Black Comedy spy thriller film written, produced and directed by The Coen Brothers, starring John Malkovich, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, J. K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and Brad Pitt.

After CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) is forced into retirement, his wife Katie (Swinton) wants to divorce him; however, when Linda Litzke (McDormand), an employee at Hardbodies Gym, finds a CD containing their financial information — and Cox's unfinished memoirs — she assumes that the CD contains sensitive information, and tries to hold it for ransom.

We suppose the layman's description of what happens next is that Hilarity Ensues, but the truth is that 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 Kirk Honeycutt, who described the film as "an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence, and everything ends badly."

This film contains examples of:

  • Accidental Truth: While cheating on Sandy with Linda, Harry lies to Linda and says he and his wife are separating. Then it turns out the car tailing Harry, which he assumed was a government spook, was actually an investigator from a law firm that Sandy had hired for divorce action.
  • The Alcoholic: Ozzie. And he absolutely will not recognize it. It's technically what kicks off the entire plot.
  • Alliterative Name: Linda Litzke.
  • Anyone Can Die: There is no Plot Armor for the Plucky Comic Relief (Chad) or the only truly sympathetic character (Ted) in this movie.
  • Astronomic Zoom: Done in the opening and closing shot, giving the sense of an omniscient viewer, in this case, the CIA....which is funny when you think about it, as by the end of the movie they really had no idea what the hell just happened.
  • Audience Surrogate: The CIA director as played by J. K. Simmons. He's the only one in the movie to point out that basically nothing that has happened makes sense.
  • Beige Prose: The few excerpts we hear from Ozzie's memoirs make it sound painfully boring.
  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: Palmer and the CIA Director. They try to figure out what's going on only to watch in bewilderment as the mess unfolds. By the end the CIA Director just seems most determined to shove the whole situation out the door.
  • Berserk Button: For Ozzie, having to deal with MORONS!!!
  • 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. It probably helps that this is a full idiocy having somebody halfway smart being baffled by how stupid this all is makes it funnier.
  • Bloody Hilarious: Let's just say Chad's ultimate fate is anything but pretty.
  • Bookends: The opening and closing Astronomic Zoom shots upon and away from the CIA headquarters.
  • Boom, Headshot!: This is what happens to Chad when Harry opens his closet, sees him, and out of nothing more than muscle memory and sheer panic, shoots him in the forehead.
  • Brainless Beauty: Chad is a personal trainer so he's in excellent shape and he's played by Brad Pitt. He's also possibly one of the dumbest characters ever seen in a Coen Brothers film, which is saying a lot.
  • Buffy Speak:
    "It's like these dates, and numbers, and dates, and numbers, and... numbers, and... I think that's the shit, man."
  • The Charmer: For all of his faults, Harry is quite affable and charming with both Linda and the party guests at the Cox household.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Literally, with Harry's gun. In his introductory scene, he brags about never having discharged it in twenty years of service, and during their first date, tells Linda that he was trained to draw it reflexively at any sign of danger. He ends up blowing Chad's brains out with it.
  • The Chew Toy: Extreme examples with Ted and Chad. Everyone else in the plot is a self-centered sociopath asshole 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...
  • Classified Information: Chad and Linda determine that a CD full of personal finances and early drafts of a memoir are this. Hilarity Ensues.
  • 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.
  • Clint Squint: Chad tries to give Osbourne Cox one when they first meet. He fails hilariously.
  • 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 discovers a cd of Osbourne's memoirs, which he thinks is top secret information.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Most of the characters in the film. About everything. One example:
    Osbourne: If you ever carried out your proposed threat, you would experience such a shitstorm of consequences, my friend, that your empty little head would be spinning faster than the wheels of your Schwinn bicycle back there!
    Chad: (chuckles) You think that's a Schwinn!
  • Compromising Memoirs: Subverted. Cox plans to release his memoirs, which are nothing like as scandalous to the agency as he believes. But then Linda and Chad mistake the memoirs for valuable "spy shit" and try to sell it to the Russians.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: The ending. Osborne's and Chad's comas/deaths are quickly covered up by the CIA.
  • Damn You, Muscle Memory!: Muscle memory makes Harry instinctively draw his gun and kill Chad when startled. Harry doesn't realize what he's done for a couple of minutes afterward.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Of crime and spy thrillers. YourMovieSucks even states that Chad & Linda are the type of people who have seen way too many spy thrillers to the point where they misinterpret a harmless memoir transcript as something akin to government secrets.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Happens to Harry after he accidentally kills Chad in the closet (he thought he was a spy). Ever since, Harry developed a Hair-Trigger Temper and distant, obsessive behavior due to paranoia and the murder he committed.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Ted.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Ozzie repeatedly throughout the film. No surprise given his drinking problem.
  • Dumb Blond: Chad has blond highlights in his hair to show he's not very bright.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: At the end of the film, Linda has finally gotten the cash for her surgeries - on the CIA's dime no less. And it only cost....three innocent people dying, two divorces, a US Marshall running away to Venezuela out of pure adrenaline-fueled paranoia, and a very confused Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones:
    • Linda is a truly repulsive, petty, and self-absorbed person. With that said, she is devastated over Chad's disappearance. She has no idea that he's been murdered by Harry.
    • Harry may be a textbook case of an adulterer, but he does seem to reserve a special spot in his heart for his wife. He is devastated when he learns that she's planning to divorce him.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Harry might not be a particularly decent or moral individual, but he is shown to be genuinely traumatised and guilt-ridden after accidentally murdering Chad.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Invoked by Chad when he attempts to act menacing towards Cox by narrowing his eyes and lowering his voice. Unfortunately, he keeps forgetting and reverting back to his normal speech. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Failed Attempt at Drama: Chad seems to be trying to look like a thoughtful dramatic lead with furrowed brow and squinted eyes when he confronts Cox with a proposition of reward in exchange for "his shit", but it fails miserably.
  • Farce: The movie only works because it doesn't even try to maintain a sensical plot.
  • Film Within a Film: Coming Up Daisy, a Romantic Comedy directed by Sam Raimi, starring Dermot Mulroney and Claire Danes, 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.
  • For Inconvenience, Press "1": Linda has some trouble with this twice.
  • Funny Background Event: Near the end, Linda's previous blind date is on the bench near her. During George Clooney's freak-out, a woman comes to meet him, who looks exactly like her.
  • Gambit Pileup: Played for Laughs, as everything goes completely screwy in a hurry.
  • Gym Bunny: Chad.
  • Haplessly Hiding: At the midpoint of the film, Chad enters Harry's house to try to find any information about him, and when he hears Harry has arrived he hides in the bedroom closet. When Harry opens the closet and sees Chad inside, Harry reflexively draws his gun and gives Chad a point-blank headshot in a panic, not even noticing that he did it until he has run out of the room and calmed down a minute later.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Katie Cox hammers on a table to punctuate as she insists, "I don't hammer!"
    • Osbourne Cox rails against the morons and idiots he feels he's surrounded by, but for all his pretensions, he's not as smart as he likes to think.
    • Harry is a serial womanizer who unapologetically cheats on his wife with multiple different women. He's so devastated when he discovers his wife has hired a divorce attorney that he starts pitifully sobbing.
  • Improvised Weapon: Ted shows surprising resourcefulness when held at gunpoint, hurling a briefcase at his attacker to throw off his aim and then running for the door with a bullet in his upper chest.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Averted. The only time a character does die from a single bullet, he was shot in the head at point-blank range. But Osbourne and Ted both survive being shot, if only barely.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Osbourne went to Princeton University.
  • It's All About Me: Half of the cast behave this way, which is given for a Coen Brothers movie. Linda in particular is convinced that the world revolves around her. One memorable example is when she schedules a meeting with the Russian embassy, then urges them to hurry things along so she won't be late for her date.
  • Jaded Washout: Ozzie, as the film suggests that his Glory Days at the agency weren't half as significant as he thinks they were.
  • Jerkass: 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: As much of a cantankerous jerk as Osbourne Cox is, he correctly points out to Chad that blackmail is a felony and could get him and Linda in serious trouble.
  • Jurisdiction Friction:
    CIA Operative: We'll interface with the FBI regarding the body.
    CIA Superior: No, no. God no. We don't need those idiots fucking everything up. Burn the body. Get rid of it.
  • 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.
    • Harry is allowed by the CIA to leave the country in peace. Aside from getting dumped by his wife and developing a severe case of paranoia, Harry receives no punishment for murdering Chad.
    • Katie Cox is a snobbish adultress who callously divorces her husband, Osbourn Cox, taking their house and all of their money for good measure, without receiving any repercussions. Downplayed in that she remains stuck in a shallow, unhappy existence and, if her scene with her child patient is any indication, a job that she hates.
    • Harry's wife, Sandy, faces no consequences for doing her own cheating, although her reaction to Katie suggests that she might have been aware of Harry's own infidelity.
  • Killed Offscreen: Cox gets gunned down by a CIA agent when the agent sees him hacking Ted to death with a hatchet, leaving him clinically brain dead. This is only related to the CIA Superior at the end of the film; the shot cuts away while Cox is killing Ted right before the shot itself presumably would have happened.
  • Kindhearted Simpleton: Chad is a complete idiot, but is one of the few good-natured and kindly characters in a movie full of jerkasses.
  • Large Ham: Osborne Cox fits the bill perfectly.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall:
    Ted: It's not a phony-baloney Hollywood body.
    Linda: That's right, Ted. I would be laughed out of Hollywood.
  • The Load: Osbourne becomes this after being shooed out of his job at the CIA. His efforts to write his memoirs seem to go nowhere and he spends most of his time watching TV, staring blankly out the window and drinking. Small wonder that Katie decides to move ahead with the divorce.
  • Love Dodecahedron: To summarize:
    • Osbourne is married to Katie, is being pressured for a reward by Linda, and kills Ted.
      Linda's blackmail scheme involves her friend Chad, she is oblivious to Ted's attraction, and later goes out with Harry.
      Harry is married to Sandy, but having an affair with Katie and also Linda, and kills Chad.
      CIA Officer: They all seem to be sleeping with each other.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Ted, the Hardbodies manager.
  • Malaproper: Linda doesn't know what "ideological" or "drivel" mean (confusing the latter for "dribble"), nor does she know the phrase "organ of state security." Ironically, the Russophones do (justified as they're embassy staff in the U.S. and thus presumably highly educated in the English language).
  • Meaningful Name: Chad introduces himself as "Mr. Black" to Osbourne. While attempting to blackmail him.
  • MockGuffin: The aforementioned "shit" is a memoir that probably would have not been published anyway, as the movie suggests Cox's book isn't important or interesting enough that anyone would want to read it.
  • Mood Whiplash: We start at casual, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, some tense scenes, followed by some shockingly funny scenes or shockingly sad scenes.
    • Case in point is the Surprisingly Sudden Death of The Ditz Chad, who gets an accidental Boom, Headshot! by spy veteran Harry.
    • The scene where Richard Jenkins, who has the only sympathetic character, is shot and has his skull split open by a crazed John Malkovich.
  • 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).
  • Mysterious Past: Gym manager Ted's former career as a European Orthodox priest.
    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.
    Linda: Well jeez, that's a good job!
    Ted: Mm-hm.
    Linda: What happened?
    Ted: Well... it's a long story. Anyway, in a lot of ways I'm happier now. My point is it's a journey.
  • Never My Fault: Plenty of this in a world full of unsympathetic people who think the world revolves around them.
    • The entire movie including Osbourne's demotion at the CIA and subsequent quitting, which lead to Katie copying the Cox files onto the CD, would have been avoided had Osbourne stopped being in denial about his drinking problem. It even continues over the course of the film.
    • Linda is responsible for almost every bad thing in the movie including the deaths of two people and the probable fatal injuring of a third, but she never once owns up to anything she's done and eventually ends the movie with everything she wants. As distraught as she is when Chad goes missing, she glosses over the fact that she sent him into the house in the first place.
    • Harry is utterly devastated at the reveal that his wife has hired a law firm to initiate divorce proceedings. He barely acknowledges the fact that he cheated on his wife with multiple women, and it's heavily implied that Sandy at least knew about Katie.
  • Nice Guy: Despite the movie taking place in a world of assholes, we can say that at least Ted and Chad are decent and likable people. Or rather, were.
  • 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 and ends up a paranoid wreck, but otherwise gets away scot-free to Venezuela. Osborne 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 chest and hacked to death with a hatchet.
  • 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.
    • "Oh, Crap!" Smile: He manages to form one of these just before being shot in the head.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • The CIA Director. It speaks to what kind of movie this is that he isn't even given a name in the credits. The CIA officer who relates the tale to him also seems to be doing so in a fashion that suggests he can't quite believe the story he's telling actually happened, but he's not quite as sharp as his boss.
    • Also, Ted, the sole voice of reason amongst his colleagues at Hardbodies — and who is always ignored. Poor Ted.
    • Katie is also this to an extent. Despite her affair with Harry she's the only central character to point out that Osbourne's memoirs — which the events of the entire film revolve around — are completely worthless.
  • Precision S Strike: Chad, to the most hilarious effect.
    "I thought you might be worried... about the security... of your shit."
  • Production Foreshadowing: When Linda and Harry go to the theater to watch Coming Up Daisy, the board displaying showtimes lists Hail, Caesar! as one of the films showing at the theater.
  • Properly Paranoid: Though not for the proper reason.
  • Really Gets Around: Harry.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Palmer and the CIA Director. They both handle the bizarre situation as elegantly as anyone could, even if they're as confused as the audience is as to what the hell happened.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Osbourne delivers one each to Chad and Ted.
    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.
    Osbourne: Oh yes, I know very well what you represent. You represent the idiocy of today. Yeah, you're the guy at the gym when I asked about that moronic woman. Oh yes, you see, you're one of the morons I've been fighting my whole life. My whole fucking life. But guess what... Today, I win.
  • Red Herring: The secret machine that Harry's working on. Possibly the best rug-pull of the entire film.
  • 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. Cue the Dramatic Curtain Toss, and... turns out it's a sex-toy, namely a rocking chair that pushes a dildo up and down.
  • Run for the Border: Harry is seized trying to board a flight to Venezuela.
    Palmer: We had his name on a hot list. CBP pulled him in. Don't know why he was trying to go to Venezuela.
    CIA Director: You don't know.
    Palmer: No, sir.
    CIA Director: We have no extradition with Venezuela.
    Palmer: Oh! So what should we do with him?
    CIA Director: For fuck's sake, put him on the next flight to Venezuela!
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: The ending. And it works.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Played for laughs. Chad trades in his gym attire for a nice suit during his attempt to blackmail Osbourne Cox. It just causes him to look more ridiculous and out of place.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: The Mood Whiplash moment of Chad's Surprisingly Sudden Death.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Both Chad and Ted lose their lives in vain attempts to gather information at Osborne's house. The Irony is that their Unwitting Instigator of Doom Linda gets out alive, padded with hush money from the CIA. Furthermore, judging by the CIA Director's nonchalant reaction after being told Osbourne's clearance level ("No biggie.") and the Russian embassy staff's confused reaction to reading them, it's almost certain his memoirs didn't contain anything the least bit sensitive or revealing, thus rendering all the fuss over them completely pointless.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Osbourne Cox is responsible for approximately half of the F-words in the entire film. Unlike other examples, he only curses when he's angry, but since he has a Hair-Trigger Temper, this happens almost all the time.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: It's a Coen Brothers movie. What did you expect, sunshine and rainbows?
  • Small Name, Big Ego: The way Osbourne Cox struts around throwing out fancy talk of federal offenses and classified information. What we know of his job is that he makes himself out as way more important than he ever was during his time at the CIA. (Consider, for example, that as soon as the CIA Director learns that Osborne's clearance level was "three", he immediately responds to the fact that information from him has made its way to the Russian Embassy with a nonchalant "No biggie.") While there's no indication that his CD contains actual classified information or valuable secrets, Osborne 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.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Chad and Linda only get hold of Cox’s memoir material because the CD it was on fell out of a gym bag owned by Katie’s divorce lawyer’s secretary, who is onscreen for less than half a minute.
  • Spoof Aesop: At the end, the CIA director tries to find a lesson in all that has happened, only to conclude that there is none.
    CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
    Palmer: I don't know, sir.
    CIA Superior: I don't fuckin' know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
    Palmer: Yes, sir.
    CIA Superior: I'm fucked if I know what we did.
    Palmer: Yes, sir, it's, uh... hard to say.
    CIA Superior: Jesus fucking Christ.
  • The Spook: Harry thinks Chad is this.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: "She's a cold stuck-up bitch."
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Chad.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Osborne feels this about his entire life. It's played with, since he himself isn't as smart as he likes to think.
    Osborne Cox: You're part of a league of morons. You're one of the morons I have been fighting my whole life. My whole. Fucking. Life.
  • Title In: The opening scene at the CIA headquarters is shown with onscreen information about the location.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Our Wannabe Secret Agents Chad and Linda. The latter manages to get out alive and scot-free, though.
  • Translation by Volume: Linda keeps slowly emphasizing the word "date" to the Russian embassy staff, even though they clearly understand English very well and just seem to be deliberately brushing her off.
  • Unnecessary Combat Roll: Harry after he has already killed Chad.
  • 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.
    • In a more macro way, it's Katie's copying of Osborne's files to use in the case of a divorce, that her lawyer's secretary accidentally leaves on the floor of a ladies' locker room, where they are picked up by Manolo and opened by Chad that really gets the ball rolling.
  • Villain Protagonist: Osborne 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, completely screwing him over in the divorce settlement), that makes them the villains... and the protagonists. May cross over with Hero Antagonist.
  • Wannabe Secret Agent: Chad and Linda. When they discover Osborne's manuscript, they falsely believe it to contain classified information that could be sold to the Russian government. A whole ton of Cringe Comedy ensues. Osborne later calls Chad out on his stupidity.
  • Waxing Lyrical: As Harry is taking a shower at Osborne's house to wait for Katie, he sings "My Eyes Adored You" and the theme to Born Free.
  • 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!?!
  • With Due Respect: Said by Osborne during his talk with his supervisor in the opening scene.
    Osborne: Palmer, with all due respect, what the fuck are you talking about?

"Jesus, what a clusterfuck."