On September 12, 2008, Joel and Ethan Coen set the film world on fire with their star-studded, slapstick spy comedy Burn After Reading. 15 years later, their hilarious vision of mad-cap espionage, political befuddlement, and ditzy DC unscrupulousness has remained both funny and a little bit prophetic.
When released, the spoof was praised for its quintessential Coen brothers’ insanity. Roger Ebert noted, “It's funny, sometimes delightful, sometimes a little sad, with dialogue that sounds perfectly logical until you listen a little more carefully and realize all of these people are mad.” After a while, however, people started to see a method to the madness.
After making No Country for Old Men—which won the Academy Award® for Best Picture—the Coen brothers returned to their signature satirical humor by tackling the spy genre with Burn After Reading. Joel Coen told Uncut, “We just said, ‘Let’s do a spy movie,’ I think mostly because we had never done one before.” More important than the genre, however, was working with some of their favorite actors, like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, and Tilda Swinton, to name a few. “It was an exercise in thinking about what kind of characters they might play, and what kind of story they might inhabit,” Ethan Coen explained to Uncut.
Years after it was released, the messy shenanigans of an alcoholic CIA analyst (Malkovich), some obtuse, opportunistic gym employees (Pitt and McDormand), and a paranoid, philandering Marshall (Clooney) started to come into focus. Looking back, The New Republic wrote, “More than just a satire on espionage, the movie is a scathing critique of modern America as a superficial, post-political society where cheating of all sorts comes all too easily.”
Naming it as “the Most Underrated Coen Brothers Movie,” MovieWeb wrote that “Burn After Reading is a masterful work of satire and among the most cunning films that the duo ever made together.” Indeed, what was first funny, then prophetic, has now been recognized as a classic comedy that provides each generation a dark-comic mirror to hold up to their own times. As Set the Tape wrote, “The best thing about a Coen brothers movie is that they make the seemingly pointless and empty into something tragically funny.”
Cowritten by Tricia Cooke, Ethan Coen’s next film, Drive Away Dolls, is in theaters February 23, 2024.