Netflix movie of the day: Burn After Reading is a satirical Coen brothers comedy for the ages

Brad Pitt holds a phone up to his face in a still from the movie Burn After Reading
(Image credit: Netflix)
Movie of the day

Every day, we cut through the bottomless list of streaming options and recommend something to watch. See all our Netflix movie of the day picks, or our Prime Video movie of the day choices.

Burn After Reading is not your typical spy comedy movie and that's what makes it genius. This sub-genre tends to attract silly romcoms like Knight and Day or slapstick spoofs such as Johnny English, but if you're looking for a more subtle take on satirical espionage then this new Netflix movie is well worth watching. Like another Coen brothers movie called The Big Lebowski, which is my favorite zany comedy from the filmmaking duo, it has an outlandish plot that snowballs into absurdity with subversive humor to keep it lighthearted along the way.   

Burn After Reading follows dimwitted gym trainers Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) who attempt to sell what they believe to be a misplaced top-secret government dossier to the Russian Embassy. Little do they know that the mysterious CD is in fact filled with the memoirs of disgraced CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich)...

What makes the movie so enjoyable is the talented performances by its star-studded cast, which also includes George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins and JK Simmons (although his part in the film is small, it's no less impactful and memorable). Even critics who didn't rate it highly agree that it showed another side (admittedly not the best one) of the Hollywood A-listers we'd come to know.  

Burn After Reading didn't receive glowing praises when it was released in 2008, with reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert describing the plot as something that goes "around and around and comes out here, there, everywhere".  The New Yorker's David Denby agreed describing it as "stifled by a farce plot so bleak and unfunny that it freezes your responses after about forty-five minutes". 

The Guardian was harsher, saying: "There are one or two successful jokes, and a continuous, surface level of plausible narrative activity... The story doubles in manic pointlessness with every minute that passes and the final, abysmal lines of the movie betray an abject throwing in of the towel: a revelation that the Coens couldn't be bothered, or hadn't time, to think up a proper ending." 

As a result, it doesn't have the highest ratings, which is why it didn't make the cut for one of the four dramas with over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes from everything new on Netflix this month, but that should not dissuade you from watching it, especially because it was likely overshadowed by the release of No Country for Old Men a year earlier, which won an Oscar for Best Picture. If anything, Simmons' line of dialogue in the closing part of the film, "What have we learned", is telling of everything that wasn't said.

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Amelia Schwanke
Senior Editor UK, Home Entertainment

Amelia became the Senior Editor for Home Entertainment at TechRadar in the UK in April 2023. With a background of more than eight years in tech and finance publishing, she's now leading our coverage to bring you a fresh perspective on everything to do with TV and audio. When she's not tinkering with the latest gadgets and gizmos in the ever-evolving world of home entertainment, you’ll find her watching movies, taking pictures and travelling.