Laura CliffordThe Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, grabbed everyone’s attention last year with their dark, brooding multi-character study with “No Country for Old Men.” They do a 180 degree turnaround with their latest lark about just-fired spook, a disk containing top secret information, two bumbling gym employees trying to make some quick cash and the CIA’s efforts to keep a lid on all of it in “Burn After Reading.”
The brothers Coen reportedly wrote the script for this darkly lighthearted tome at the same time they were scripting "No Country…" and the result could not have been more different. You know right off the bat that we are dealing with mirth, not mayhem, as volatile and unstable CIA analyst Osborne Cox is unceremoniously fired because of his drinking problem. Ozzie doth protest too much and vows to publish his memoirs that would blow the lid off the spy organization.
Meanwhile, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a worker at a local chain gym, is dissatisfied with her body and wants to undergo extensive (and expensive) cosmetic surgery to correct the problems. However, her health insurance will not cover such elective treatment and she has to find a way to raise the money to make her perfect. One day, one of the other employees finds a mysterious disk and her colleague, Chad (Brad Pitt), none to bright, tells her that it contains secret government information and the disk belongs to one Osborne Cox. Linda sees the disk as the cash cow that will solve all of her surgery problems and a blackmail scam ensues.
Harry (George Clooney), a former US Marshall now in the personal protection business, is having an affair with Ozzie's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), but she is demanding that they solidify their relationship after she dumps Cox. Harry, who loves sex (as often as possible), and doesn't want Kate's encumbrance and, instead, goes online and meets Linda, who is looking for a serious relationship. They have sex.
The script, by the Coens, is fast-paced, funny and quirky endeavor that brings their regular players (Clooney and McDormand), and new faces (for them), to the big screen. The story, based in Washington D.C., delves into the highest levels of the CIA with J.K. Simmons giving a hilarious perrformance as the high-ranking spook who just wants any problems brushed under the rug and the lowly blue-collar workers who want to make a buuck, legally or illegally.
Everyone is having a good time here, in front of and behind the camera. John Malkovich as the acerbic, loud and profane drunkard-in-denial is outrageous and unpredictable. Clooney and McDormand are solid in their perfs. Brad Pitt has a ball as the clueless Chad. Supporting roles are best met by the always reliable J.K. Simmons and the underrated Richard Jenkins as the health club manager who harbors a secret crush on Linda.
Do not go to see "Burn After Reading" if you expect the same serious fare as we saw in "No Country…." Go into this with a free spirit that appreciates intelligent satire, likes to have fun and enjoys the workings of a veteran team of players on both sides of the camera. I give it a B.
Hardbodies Fitness Center's Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, "Fargo") is incensed that her company's HMO will not pay for the four cosmetic surgical procedures she is obsessed with, so when her colleague Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, "Ocean's Thirteen") finds a disk in the customer locker area that appears to contain U.S. Government secrets, Linda decides to shop it to the Russians for cash. This incident and the coincidental connections between Linda and U.S. Government personnel set off a baffling sequence of events that baffle the C.I.A. in writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen's ("No Country for Old Men") "Burn After Reading."
After their shattering adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's violent Western, the Coen brothers turn back to comedy with this lark that crosses stupid people with Government agents via a string of adulteries. "Burn After Reading" isn't the sharpest or funniest comedy the Coens have ever produced, but it is cleverly concocted and features a hilarious turn from the great character actor J.K. Simmons ("Spider-Man 3," "Juno") as a C.I.A. chief. This is the type of film that effects more chuckles upon reflection than while it's running.
The film begins as the C.I.A.'s Balkans' desk man Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, "Ripley's Game," "Art School Confidential") marches to a meeting where he will learn he's being demoted due to a drinking problem. Later that night, after a gathering where we learn his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton") is having an affair with federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney, "Ocean's Thirteen," "Michael Clayton"), Oz tells Katie he's quit his job. Humorless Katie secretly visits a divorce lawyer who advises her to get her husband's financial information pronto. She also downloads the file that is the beginnings of his memoirs.
That's the disk that makes its way into Linda's hands, but we also discover that Harry is a sex addict who uses Internet dating services to meet women. One of those women is Linda. After blackmailing Osborne doesn't work out and the Russian Embassy's Krapotkin (Olek Krupa, "The Italian Job") tells Linda and Chad their disk is worthless, Linda promises to get more data, putting herself and Chad into Harry's path with Linda's lovesick boss Ted's (Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor") warning that pursuing the disk would lead to no good unheeded. Dead bodies, panicked reactions and stakeout info are reported by a CIA Officer (David Rasche, "United 93," "Flags of Our Fathers") to a superior content to let the whole inexplicable mess burn itself out.
Once again the Coens use the conventions of a genre to bring their own wacky world view to the screen. From the film's opening satellite pic, accompanied by the clackety-clack percussion of Carter Burwell's ("No Country for Old Men") score as letters 'type' out onto the screen identifying location, we know we're in spy thriller territory but here the 'spies' just happen to be dumb jocks in fitness togs. Linda's low IQ is immediately evident from her incomprehension of medical benefits, then expanded upon by her willingness to bray with laughter at an insipid comedy ("Coming Up Daisy" starring Claire Danes and Dermot Mulroney). Pitt, in a silly, streaky pompadour, has the ability to make his baby blues the window to vacuousness, intellectual engagement limited to input from his iPod earbuds. He's obviously having a lot of fun in the role. Although his character is a federal marshal, Clooney is another nitwit who is impressed by the size of his own gun and always trying to squeeze in a run when not building sexual contraptions in his basement. The Coens appear to be equating body image to a shallowness of mind. This is one of Clooney's broader, buggy-eyed performances and the film's major failing is the inability to suspend disbelief that Harry would be attracted to Katie and vice versa - he's a dumb hunk who malaprops imagined medical conditions for himself and she's a shrewish medical doctor. Clooney's "Clayton" costar Swinton has the most thankless role in the film and the actress can't find a hook to make Katie's characteristics more satirical. Malkovich, on the other hand, is perfectly cast as the delusional spook, foaming at the mouth over the chaos he cannot comprehend. J.K. Simmons makes his character's teflon tactics a witty criticism and his line readings are like hilarious subtitles to the action.
"Burn After Reading" is like one of those domino knock-downs where one action upsets an entire house of cards, criss-crossing itself through the entire journey. After 'Coen-as-dark-as-it-can-get,' this one's Coen light even with a death by hatchet.
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