Burn After Reading

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 09/13/08 04:06:44

"An anti-spy comedy/black comedy well worth your time (and money)."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Prolific filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen ("The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing," "Raising Arizona," "Blood Simple"), fresh off their Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, "No Country for Old Men," are back less than a year later with "Burn After Reading," a black/comedy spy farce. With their reputations restored after the success of "No Country for Old Men" ("The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty" were critical and commercial misfires), the Coen Brothers deliver an absurdist, Seinfeldian comedy of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and mistaken identity. "Burn After Reading" may not reach the Olympian heights of the Coen Brothers’ previous forays into farce and black comedy ("The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," and "Raising Arizona" got there first), but it comes close.

Burn After Reading focuses on a minor constellation of self-obsessed characters, ranging from Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury agent and serial adulterer who brags about never firing his gun in 20 years as an agent, the married lover angling for a long-term commitment, Katie (Tilda Swinton), her ex-CIA analyst husband with a drinking problem and a penchant for profanity, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a forty-something gym employee eager to embark on a flurry of self-improvement through cosmetic surgery, her manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), who longs for Linda to return his romantic interest, and Linda’s friend and fellow gym employee, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a strutting, preening, pretty boy who’s as deep as the shallow end of a swimming pool.

Everyone wants something from everyone else and that something, a MacGuffin (an object of desire and plot device of little relevance and marginal importance) if there ever was one, centers on a CD containing a partial manuscript of Osborn’s tell-all memoirs. An employee at the Hardbodies Fitness Center finds the CD, turns it over to Chad. After deciphering the CD’s contents, Chad and Linda see money in their future: contact Osborne and offer the CD in exchange for a “Good Samaritan” tax. Osborne refuses to go along to get along, which in turn convinces Chad and Linda to look for a buyer; their first stop: the Russian embassy and a cultural attaché, Krapotkin (Olek Krupa). As Chad and Linda stumble their way into mischief and mayhem, Pfarrer’s deceit begins to catch up with him. Osborne, despairing at the loss of his career and his disintegrating marriage, veers dangerously close into madness.

A nominal spy farce where everyone makes serious misjudgments based on self-interest and, given the Washington, D.C. setting, rampant, unfiltered paranoia, Burn After Reading is ultimately less about its plot convolutions (all of them minimally plausible) than the fear, anxiety, and doubt (FUD), and the mangled bodies and tortured psyches left in the wake of a series of increasingly absurd, if no less deadly, coincidences. And given that Burn After Reading is a Coen Brothers film through and through, light, satirical comedy turns increasingly bleak, until all of the characters are caught up in the unintended consequences (or to borrow a phrase from foreign policy circles, “blowback”) that lead into the blackest comedy.

Themes aside, "Burn After Reading" features a drum-tight ensemble cast, from John Malkovich as the volcanic-tempered Osborne, to Tilda Swinton’s icy cool portrayal of Katie, to George Clooney’s manic turn as a deceitful serial adulterer, to Frances McDormand as the self-centered, dim, but not dim-witted Linda Litzke, to the underrated Richard Jenkins as Linda’s manager (his tortured looks alone are a master class in self-abnegation), to Brad Pitt, letting his inner narcissist come out and play in his performance as Chad Feldheimer, and in two smaller, but no less hilarious roles, David Rasche as a CIA officer deeply perplexed by the events surrounding Chad and Linda’s attempts to blackmail Osborne, and, finally, to the always reliable J.K. Simmons as the CIA officer’s superior, who refuses to let a couple of bodies and a shooting ruin his day.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.