It’s a Kind of MacGuffin…
By chance, two inept gym workers discover a computer disk containing what looks like government secrets. This leads to a chain of crazy events in this Coen brothers caper.
Burn After Reading Official Trailer #1 – Brad Pitt Movie (2008) HD, Movieclips Classic Trailers
Hearing the bombastic drum score of Burn After Reading (2008), the directors, the Coen brothers would have you believe you are watching an espionage movie of the Telefon (1977) or The Manchurian Candidate (1962) kind. But you’re not. This instrumental score is merely a dramatic distraction and is used effectively as just one of the red herrings added to this movie.
In Burn After Reading, two (deluded) characters after finding the MacGuffin, a computer disk containing records, apparent codes and signals of government events, set off a chain of events that leads to deadly consequences. This MacGuffin spurs on the actions of those two characters throughout this film plot. The MacGuffin movie term was defined by Miriam Webster HERE as;
an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.
Alfred Hitchcock often used this motif in his films and this director often fooled his audience with his use of objects as MacGuffins. So don’t read this next paragraph if you don’t want some spoilers, although these ones are widely documented.
These MacGuffins include the microfilm with government secrets in North by Northwest (1959), the tune in The Lady Vanishes (1938) – this MacGuffin was also used in the remake HERE – and the stolen money in Psycho (1960). Other film examples include characters such as the Colonel Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now (1979) and the disappearance of Doug in The Hangover (2009) which sets the Wolf pack into hunting down this missing groom to be.
Burn After Reading’s opening credit’s score remind you of Cold War espionage films. A satellite picture of the earth zooms closer and closer until it gets to the final destination of the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. This scene is complemented by an ominous drum score as inspired by Seven Days in May (1964).
CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is summoned to a meeting with Palmer (David Rasche), a CIA officer and two colleagues. Palmer tells Osborne (Ozzie) that he’s being demoted “to a lower clearance level”, and it seems this is due to his alleged drinking problem. Ozzie goes full-tilt ballistic claiming his demotion is “political” and a “crucifixion”. He then gets defensive about his drinking problem, quits his job, goes home and pours himself a stiff drink.
After Ozzie’s numerous attempts to tell his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) this news, she is too preoccupied with whether he bought some cheese for a get together with friends. She’s annoyed and curt with him as the guests are due to arrive in less than an hour. The guests arrive and they include the neurotic and food faddy (due to medical problems of all sorts), U.S. Marshal, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and his wife, Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel) who writes popular children’s books.
Harry Pfarrer is supernervous – if not a shade paranoid – as he speaks to Ozzie and their friends. We discover that Harry is having an affair with Katie. Harry tells Katie that he believes that Ozzy knows about their affair. Katie brusquely denies it. It seems both the women in Harry’s life believe the other woman to be “a stuck up bitch”.
After the guests leave, Ozzie tells Katie about the work meeting. As he hasn’t accepted any monetary compensation, he reassures her that he is going to do consulting work and write his memoirs. She is abrasive with him, and it’s implied there is nothing of a sensitive nature about his work at the CIA. Ozzie later tells his father about leaving his job as it’s now “all bureaucracy and no mission”, but that he believes his memoirs will be “pretty explosive”. Katie speaks with a lawyer, the lawyer suggests getting a record of their financial records before asking Ozzie for a divorce.
Meanwhile, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is having a consultation for some beauty surgery treatments. She’s hoping to reinvent herself using various treatments including rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, liposuction and a facial tuck. It’s going to cost a lot, and she doesn’t have the money. Much to her annoyance, her work health benefits won’t cover the costs, as it’s seen as elective surgery.
Linda works at Hard Bodies gym, with an all brawn but no brain, buddy, Chad (Brad Pitt) and her loved up boss (Richard Jenkins). Ted is not so secretly in love with Linda. Linda however is internet dating and is keen to find a man with a sense of humour. But she’s still fussy and goes for a man in an expensive suit who works for the State Department. But they only have a one night stand.
Katie tells Harry, that she’s planning on divorcing Ozzie. He’s more hesitant but says he’ll leave his wife after Katie puts the pressure on him. Katie saves Cox’s financial information and records on a computer disc – while Ozzie is out getting drunk with some University friends – and she mistakenly adds the files which contain her husband’s (un)controversial memoirs to give to her lawyer.
At Linda’s work, there is a bit of a commotion as a
MacGuffin computer disk has been found on the floor of the ladies’ locker room. Himbo, Chad examines the contents and believes – albeit mistakenly – that it appears to have CIA classified information stored on it. As Chad puts it is “secret CIA shit”;
Talking here about department heads and the names and shit and these other files are just, like numbers arrayed. Numbers and dates, and numbers and numbers, and dates and numbers, and I think that’s the shit, man. The raw intelligence!
Ted is not happy about this find and wants it off work property. After Chad finds out from a friend with computer skills that the computer disc belongs to Ozzie, he visits Linda. Both believe that Ozzie works high up in the CIA, and they’ll get a Good Samaritan reward from him. Chad also has Ozzie’s home phone number and he calls Ozzie – with Linda listening in on another line – and tells him he’s got his.. er.. files and “sensitive shit”. Chad starts quoting from Ozzie’s memoir notes to him.
Ozzie is angry and annoyed and he warns Chad about the implications of profiting from this “CIA information leak”. He gets angrier after Chad asks for a reward. Linda interrupts their squabble and tells Ozzie they’ll phone back with their demands, and she slams the phone down. She then tells Chad, this reward money would help cover her beauty surgery treatments.
Ozzie is unsure as to how they got his memoir notes and tells Katie about this call. Katie is again quizzical about how explosive these memoir notes can really be and how they got this information. As Katie sees her lawyer again, his secretary can’t find the computer disc she copied the Coxs’ files onto. It seems that she put it in her gym bag, which is labelled Hard Bodies. Katie then files for divorce from Ozzie.
Meanwhile, Sandy has left on a nationwide book tour. Harry becomes concerned as he believes he is being spied on. Cue that unnerving drum score… Despite this, he meets a one night stand, Monica. He impresses on her how he carries a gun at all times. He appears to be a serial philanderer, as Harry also later meets Linda and their date is a success.
Chad meets with Ozzie in his car, and despite disguising his voice, giving Ozzie “evil” looks and calling himself Mr Black, he is unconvincing and does not obtain a “reward” from Ozzie. Instead, all he gets is a lecture about the ethics of blackmail and punch in the face, from the exceedingly irate Ozzie.
After Chad joins Linda in her car afterwards, she follows Ozzie and she rams his car before driving off. Linda then decides to take the computer disk to a Russian agent and she drives to the Russian embassy… and if you want to know more, you know what to do…
This film is a delightful fun comedy and I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It was brilliantly cast, with all the roles – apart from Katie – written especially for the cast. So it is hard to see anyone else in these roles as they are brilliantly inspired casting. Tilda Swinton was also perfectly cast as Katie. She was brusque, abrasive and curt with everyone from her lover to her lawyer. And even with a small child when we see her at work as a paediatrician.
Clooney is convincing as portrays Harry as a twitchy and paranoid philanderer who believes he is being followed. His scenes where he believes this were often reinforced by combinations of the dialogue, that foreboding drum score and some fabulous cinematography. This cinematography often implies he is being watched by an unseen source.
Pitt was incredible as the incredibly nice but dim Chad in his enthusiastic childlike performance, where his character gets way in over his head. All the characters came over as having selfish motives apart from Chad because he wanted to help Linda, and his boss Ted who you’ll find also gets inveigled into the later plot.
I loved the intricate plot, with its twists and turns which connected the characters. These become more and more detailed as the plot shifts gear. You’ll find those connections with Ozzie – both obvious and not so obvious – lead to more dramatic and comic moments to a surprising end.
A boatload of red herrings was added as character quirks and biographical details throughout the film. You’ll find some of the more obscure details are only added for comic moments. I for one was convinced that Harry’s apparent floor fetish, Sandy’s career as a book writer or Harry’s medical problems might be relevant.
But the biggest possible red herring was Ted’s photograph which he explained revealed he had fourteen years a Greek Orthodox priest. But I will let you discover what aids the plot as you watch it. There’s even a nice in film, rom-com film named Coming Up Daisy starring Dermot Mulroney. This in-film may or may not have a bearing on the plot. This film was seen by Linda with both her dates. But I will let you learn the truth of these possible distractions or discover the red herrings which like the score beat to their own drum…
Weeper Rating: 😦😦😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂/10
Hulk Rating: /10
The Distraction Blogathon No 33
This post was added to Taking Up Room’s Distraction Blogathon. Reviews with this cast include Brad Pitt in Tales from the Crypt, Inglourious Basterds, World War Z, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and Dallas. George Clooney in One Fine Day, Murder She Wrote and Hotel. Frances McDormand in Fargo and Somethings Gotta Give. J K Simmons in La La Land and Archer. John Malkovich in Warm Bodies. Richard Jenkins in The Witches of Eastwick. Tilda Swinton in The Grand Budapest Hotel. David Rasche in Columbo.