Sunday, September 14, 2008


Review: Burn After Reading
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The Coen Brothers are a curious pair. As a filmmaking team (with Joel often directing, Ethan producing, and both of them dreaming up their inventive scripts), their combined sense of humor is some the driest in the business and, lately, their movies tend to be highly nihilistic in tone. And yet, with their superior storytelling and technical skills, they repeatedly manage to tap directly into whichever viewer emotions befit their current project. Last year, the Coens took home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for the inhumane but indelible “No Country for Old Men,” a thriller that hits you like a punch to the gut. And how do they follow that up? By rallying a selection of Hollywood's finest to play out their random and raucous spy comedy, “Burn After Reading.” Whereas “No Country” had no resolution, “Burn” has no purpose – except to make you crack up through most of its 96 minutes.

Where to begin with describing this film? The plot meanders down such zany roads that even two characters have to periodically clarify it for one another, resulting in some of the movie's funniest scenes (but, more on that later). First, we've got Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), an embittered and unhinged “alcoholic” who recently quit his job with the CIA after an unjust demotion. Osbourne's wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), a tightly-wound career woman, is sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal who's also married and has a few other “activities” on the side. Then there's Linda Litske (Frances McDormand) a wifty serial dater who's seeking to transform herself via numerous cosmetic surgeries that she can't afford. Linda works at the D.C. gym Hardbodies with Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a blissfully ignorant trainer who's too busy pounding away on treadmills and jamming to his iPod to care about properly forming a sentence. A CD-ROM containing Osbourne's memoirs lands in the inept hands of Linda and Chad, who hold it for ransom when they think it's encoded with government secrets and will stop at nothing to get paid.

“Burn” harks back to another dark Coen comedy, the 10-year-old cult hit, “The Big Lebowski.” In that film, slacking stoner Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) gets in way over his head when he stubbornly seeks undeserved compensation from people way out of his league. The same scenario unfolds here. Linda, sweet and well-meaning as she may be, thinks she's entitled to her elective procedures and sees Osbourne's so-called “information” as her free ticket to beauty. With the help of go-getter Brad (who's too dumb to know the difference between right and wrong), she sparks a hilariously unnecessary chain of events that affects every character and reaches as high as the CIA and the Russian embassy. Normal people can sense when they've crossed the line with their selfishness, but for those like Lebowski and Linda, personal interest seems to trump all logic. Nearly everyone else in “Burn” is just as foolish and all of them are just as egocentric, a combination that usually leads to big, big laughs.

Now, let's talk about this killer cast, sure to be one of 2008's strongest. As Osbourne, Malkovich is hysterically volatile, ready to spout a curse or swing a weapon without a hint of forethought. McDormand goes places we've never seen her go before, ditching her usual, witty quirkiness for a ditzy blonde and overacting to comic perfection. Clooney gets the tone of the material just right, conveying an intermittent shock and surprise that's equally felt by the audience. Pitt hasn't had this much fun on camera in years, playing his highlighted and high-spirited character like a cross between Ryan Seacrest and Jake Steinfeld. And Swinton, as the cold-as-ice Katie, dusts off her witch from 'The Chronicles of Narnia” and chews through her scenes (she's also gifted the film's most ironic revelation, of which there are many). The principal performances are dead-on, all of them fearless and uproarious, but the supporting players are the unsung heroes of this picture. As Katie's gold-digging divorce lawyer, J.R. Horne (The Coens' “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) had me rolling. As Hardbodies' pushover of a manager, the great Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) pulls off pathetic and sympathetic simultaneously. And as two CIA superiors who must decipher and clean up this story's mess, David Rasche (TV's “All My Children”) and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) are a deadpan dream team.

For all its haphazardness, this needlessly paranoid paranoid thriller (even Carter Burwell's score creates nonexistent suspense) is surprisingly succinct. We literally drop in on this crazy caper, then just as soon pull right back out. “Burn” does feel like an in-between, pet project for the Coens; however, it's still better than what many directors serve up as their main course. Besides, it's completely aware of itself as throwaway fare, featuring an in-text disclaimer that practically renders it critic-proof. Not that many critics would disagree: “Burn After Reading” is one of the funniest films of the year.

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