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Movie Review: Burn After Reading

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Ethan and Joel Coen have made a fairly long career out of choosing to tackle whatever projects they feel like, sometimes eschewing an easier path to success in the process. How else to explain following up their last film, No Country for Old Men, the winner of four Academy Awards, with Burn After Reading, a zany and comedically twisted comedy populated with a lot of stupid, self-centered people?

As usual, the Coens snag a top-flight cast, which can only help serve a decidedly entertaining, yet admittedly pointless story about a CIA analyst (John Malkovich) dealing with a blackmail scheme and a cheating wife (Tilda Swinton). The blackmail situation arises when Linda and Chad, a couple of fitness center employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), come into possession of a computer disk that appears to have top secret information about Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), a longtime CIA man with a drinking problem. Cox’s drinking leads to his end of employment with the agency, putting him in a grouchy and exasperated mood for pretty much the remainder of the movie.

Initially, Linda and Chad have no plan to blackmail Cox (whose full name Chad seems humorously obsessed with saying). However, when Cox seems ungrateful and suspicious of their having possession of the disk, they decide to try and get money from him instead — a mistake that leads to them turning to the Russian embassy for help.

Mistakes and misunderstandings by the characters in the film permeate the screwball script, co-written by the Coens. These mistakes and misunderstandings include the activities of Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married, womanizing federal marshal, who is having an affair with Cox’s wife, Katie, even while he’s seeing Linda. He also has a growing fear that he’s being watched in public. Of course, being involved in that many different romantic relationships certainly makes such a belief seem plausible.

This marks the third collaboration between the Coens and Clooney, who has a knack for playing somewhat dim men in their films (see O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty). He, like many of the actors here, seems to be having fun playing against type. Pitt, in particular, makes good use of his limited screen time, playing the idiotic accomplice to Linda’s harebrained blackmail scheme. The cast is clearly the best part of the film, as the story itself is a bit of a jumble, filled with characters that the audience will have a difficult time rooting for. But laughing at the characters is never a problem.

Much of the humor in the movie is of a darker nature, with some of it springing up from violent encounters, verbal and physical. This means it may not appeal to all audiences, which is pretty much the same thing that can be said of most of the Coen brothers' comedies. For most people, there's should be an adequate amount of material to like here, just not quite enough to place it in the top level of their body of work.

Clearly, the Coens have no real desire to embrace conventionality, and for the most part, that’s to the benefit of audiences, who are all too frequently spoon fed simple stories with even more simple characters. That’s not to say that all of the Coens' movies lack simple people; in fact, many of their comedies are packed with them (Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, for instance). But movies like those, along with Burn After Reading, to a lesser extent, at least keep audiences interested to see what these idiots will do next (the characters in the movies, not the Coens — but I guess the statement could work either way).

Grade: B+

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About Mike Cullinan

  • http://miriamsideas.blogspot.com miriam

    I loved this movie. Of course I didn’t like the characters, who are pretty scummy; but for that reason I didn’t mind when they came to bad ends.

    It reminded me of the early novels of Elmore Leonard, full of lowdown but fascinating characters.