Blu Ray Title: Burn After Reading
Disk Release Date: 12/21/08
Screen format: 1080P High Definition Widescreen 1.85:1
First theatrical release: 9/12/08
Previous releases on disk: Day and Date with Anamorphic DVD
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt
Sound Formats: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French DTS 5.1
Length: 1 Hour 35 minutes on 1 BD-50
Subtitles: English, Spanish and French
The films of Joel and Ethan Coen span quite a range of vibes and plot lines, but one consistent aspect is that they feature smart people making dumb moves. Perhaps no film illustrates this better than this most recent entry, which observes the collision between the seemingly unrelated worlds of the CIA and the health obsessed, using this as a vehicle to examine getting older but not wiser.
Burn After Reading tracks the melodramatic tragedy that follows Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) after he is summarily dismissed from his CIA post due to a terminal case of being a bore. Cox attempts to realign his life by writing his memoirs, a lengthy screed unlikely to be interesting to anyone but himself, but loses the draft in the locker room of his gym.
This draft is found by two employees at the gym, Linda Litzke (McDormand) who is not aging gracefully and has come up short for the funds she needs to buy the plastic surgery she is sure will change her life around and Chad Feltheimer (Pitt) a foppish prettyboy who masterminds a plan with Linda to get rewarded for turning in the document to Cox. When that goes sour due to their mismatched personalities and unrealistic expectations, the pair take the documents to the russians to try and get a counter offer. The wild card in all of this comes in the form of Harry Pfarrer (Clinton) a state department worker who happens to be paranoid, an inventor of sorts, and sleeping with anyone he can get his hands on in addition to being married.
The end result is a comedy of errors that ultimately left me not feeling much of anything. The characters were just far enough out of touch with reality that I didn't empathize with most of them, the story was just goofy enough that I didn’t get fully emotionally invested, and the comedy was just a bit too surreal for my tastes. It’s not a bad film but I expected a lot more out of the Coens. It’s a hard film to describe and pigeonholing it as a comedy about intelligence and health clubs really doesn’t do it justice, as the themes of being unhappy with who you are or where you ended up in life don’t seem to naturally match with the comedy that results from that unhappiness.
It actually reminded me a lot of the film “Before the Devil knows you are dead”, just with more of a laugh track. It’s an odd combination but that’s what the Coens bring to the table, so fans of their work shouldn’t skip this one, but others might be advised to try this it as a rental to start.
Sound Quality: 3.5/5
The highlight of the soundtrack is Carter Burwell’s amazing bookends “Earth Zoom In” and “Earth Zoom Out” which are given a spacious sound stage to work from and really give a nice spy vibe to the film, but sadly that doesn’t last. While those tracks are well done with fantastic bass and good surround data, the rest of the film is fairly front focused with Burwell’s excellent contributions taking a back seat to the Coen’s dialogue. There isn’t a whole lot else to say other than the mix is a bit pedestrian but the music sets a nice tone and keeps the film focal point on the spies even when the plot runs a bit off the rails.
Visual Quality: 3.5/5
Visually the film has a lot to offer. Opening with Earth Zoom (In) is the classic spy satellite “From outer space to in your face” trick that looks amazing, and while the rest of the movie doesn’t keep up with that high water mark it is still a pretty sharp and colorful film with a clean and detailed transfer. There is a bit of film grain belying the choice of stock used, but it is never distracting, gives it some character, and matches what I suspect viewers would recall from a theatrical viewing.
Extra Features: 2.5/5
There are three short featurettes plus the standard batch of lame BD-Live junk that Universal should be ashamed of putting on the box as a feature (“My scenes” is NOT special feature, nor are internet only streaming trailers). Of the featurettes, “Finding the Burn” is the best and most interesting, in that it allows viewers to get a glimpse of just what the Coens were trying to do here, and one gets the feeling that they find this combination of CIA and exercise funnier than most viewers will. “DC Insiders” focuses on the batch of actors who have been in Coen films before and allows them to riff on why they like working on these films and what they think the Coens are going for. Finally, “Welcome Back George” takes a look at the Coen/Clooney connection and how George Clooney has matured and what he brings to this particular role.
Overall: 3/5 (not an average)
While Burn didn’t seem up to the greatness that I found in past Coen films it has some good laughs (Pitt in particular hams it up a bit and Harry’s invention had me roaring), so it wasn’t a waste of time for me. I think that those who aren’t open to the Coen vision might have a bit of an issue with it tho, and it certainly wasn’t the slapstick that the trailer made it out to be. While it looks about as good as I expect this film can look, the sound only grabbed me in a few places and the extras are nothing special, and as noted those who aren’t sure going in should consider a rental to start, especially given the near $40 price point this disk has.