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“Burn After Reading”

“Burn After Reading” (photo)

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It doesn’t make a lot of sense to follow up a movie as dark as “No Country for Old Men” with one as downright silly as “Burn After Reading,” which is why it works for the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan have done this before — they made “Raising Arizona” after “Blood Simple”; “The Big Lebowski” followed “Fargo” — and if there’s one thing these brothers savor, it’s upending their audience’s expectations. The only thing people didn’t like about the almost uniformly beloved “No Country” was the film’s controversial ending and its handling of a sudden off-screen death of one of the main characters. In “Burn After Reading,” they push it farther, refusing to show you the chain of events that set the film’s entire blackmail plot into motion.

They’re not just messing with you; by taking their last film’s most significant criticism and making it even more noticeable, they’re also making fun of themselves, and that idea of self-parody reverberates through every frame of their latest movie. This is a spy picture in which nobody does any actual spying (at least not for the government; plenty of people are snooping around on their spouses) and where the intelligence community is portrayed as a world inhabited wholly by people without intelligence. Just about everybody whose name appears on the poster is skewering their onscreen persona, the most obvious being the picture’s two biggest stars, George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

Pitt actually has a small supporting role. When his name shows up in the credits, it reads “And Brad Pitt.” The very notion that any movie might have such an important cast that one of the world’s biggest movie stars would get tossed in as an afterthought seems like a joke in and of itself. He plays Chad Feldheimer, a personal trainer that’s the very antithesis of the characters Pitt typically plays onscreen — not the slightest bit cool or suave, with no sense of personal style, nor even a whiff of intelligence, and a truly obnoxious haircut. Chad works at a Hardbodies gym in Washington D.C., where he finds a CD full of “intelligence shit” in the women’s locker room and starts dreaming of a big finder’s fee. The top-billed Clooney plays Harry Pfarrer, a philandering U.S. marshal swept up completely by accident into the world of espionage. When you see the movie, you may note that Clooney, sporting a thick beard, looks very much like Bob Barnes, the CIA agent he played in “Syriana,” a very serious spy movie. That surely is no accident.

09112008_burnafterreading2.jpgPfarrer is involved in two affairs at the film’s outset: one with Katie (Tilda Swinton), the wife of CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, the cast’s true standout), who loses his classified information-laden memoirs, and Linda (Frances McDormand), the plastic surgery-obsessed Hardbodies employee who recovers them along with Chad. (We never do see the disc being lost or recovered.) Linda and Chad want to blackmail Cox but they’re not exactly the sharpest crayons in the box. And despite his bowties and his drunken behavior and the ridiculous way he pronounces the word “chèvre,” Cox isn’t a pushover.

I like that the Coens don’t take themselves seriously. They made a serious, brutal movie and didn’t feel like making another one just yet. Winning a Best Picture Oscar has gone to the heads of many filmmakers, but that’s clearly not the case here; this is one of their zaniest, most immature films in the best possible way. There’s a looseness to their work in “Burn After Reading,” and with it comes a sense of unpredictability as well, and if a comedy is going to work, it had better catch us by surprise.

And yet the movie does have some things on its mind behind cracking jokes. The “Enemy of the State” knockoff credits sequence, where the camera gives us a spy satellite view of the earth and slowly zooms in until it’s at ground level in Langley, Virginia, suggests “Burn After Reading” will be a parody of paranoia thrillers where innocent people are done in by a corrupt and egregiously powerful government. Not so; in fact, in the Coens’ view, humanity is more than capable of destroying themselves without the assistance of power-mad governmental evil (who, in their eyes, are too clueless to pose a real threat). Paranoia is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy; one moment you’re seeing unmarked sedans everywhere, the next you’ve killed someone with that firearm you swore you’d never have to discharge on the job.

McDormand’s character Linda has the most important lines in the movie. “I’m reinventing myself,” she says. “I’ve gone just as far as I can go with this body!” (Linda, who works in a gym, never even considers the idea that she could work out to improve her figure). Like a lot of people in this country, Linda and the rest of the characters of “Burn After Reading” are plagued with the disease of free-floating dissatisfaction: they’re not happy in their lives and they’re constantly searching for that one missing thing — whether it’s sex or a new job or a facelift — they think will magically solve everything. The movie really nails that vibe and why shouldn’t it? Who knows the art of reinvention better than the Coen brothers? They do it to themselves every movie.


Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.


Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…


A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.