Thursday, March 11, 2010

Archive: 'Burn After Reading'

Movie Review
Burn After Reading (2008)

After the Coen brothers' bleak Best Picture winner last year, "No Country for Old Men," they certainly have no problem returning to their previous form of dark screwball comedy. Their latest movie, "Burn After Reading," is a comedic thriller or a thrilling comedy, depending on which way you want to view it, but either way you put it, it's always difficult to place any Coen movie into a distinct category. Here's another example of their zany ways of using sharp wit to concoct something truly absurd and wild, and this time it comes in the form of a savvy caper farce.

The movie opens with a man named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) getting fired from his job at a CIA headquarters due to being labeled as an alcoholic. Cox is the type of angry drunk who refuses to admit he has a drinking problem because he has the decency to at least wait for the clock to strike five o'clock. To his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), back at home, he claims that he quit and that he has decided to write a memoir. "Who would want to read that?" she bitterly responds. At the same time, she’s been sleeping with another man, Harry (George Clooney), a sex-crazed sleaze who has constructed a sex chair that you must see to understand. While he’s sleeping with Katie, Harry is also involved with a woman named Linda (Frances McDormand) who found her on a dating website. Linda's biggest desire is to have four simple surgeries done to improve her look but doesn't have the insurance to cover them. Meanwhile, she's also an employee at a gym called Hardbodies with her friend, Chad (Brad Pitt), who gets his hands on what he believes to be highly secretive CIA information.

It's a total riot to watch these A-list actors give everything they got and deliver performances that ooze with an absolutely contagious and exuberant amount of enthusiasm. They know what they're involved in is silly goof ball stuff, and that's what makes it all the more enjoyable. These actors provide entertaining and memorable characters, whether they're completely idiotic or just a downright asshole. McDormand connects with her go-getter attitude she presented in "Fargo" and has a quirky chemistry with Clooney who lets it all loose here. Malkovich is more pissed-off and funnier than ever, and Swinton is perfectly scalding. And then there’s Brad Pitt, who's new to any Coen production and somehow miraculously pulls off his gum-chewing, highlighted-haired, obnoxious puppy dog of a character. It's a breakthrough. There are also brief but excellent turns by Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor," "Step Brothers") as a seemingly levelheaded Hardbodies employee and J.K. Simmons ("Juno") as the CIA head.

So, there's definitely a lot going on throughout the movie, and the plot zips along and turns in on itself and comes out every which way. All of the characters eventually cross paths in one way or another and then there are some surprising deaths. It's all very dark, about as dark as any comedy is allowed to get while still being funny. All the characters involved in the random scenarios aren't necessarily very intelligent and sometimes drop to the level of sheer stupidity, and while some may find that aspect frustrating, I believe it adds to the overall loopiness of the ordeal. There's a constant lapse in communication between each character with far too many holes and gaps that aren't getting filled, and it makes for great hectic humor.

Just as the CIA head doesn't want to be called again until "all of this makes sense," the fact is that it never really does make any sense, and the whole movie ends on an abruptly ideal note. "Burn After Reading" is a more playful project for Joel and Ethan Coen, and it's definitely no award-winner, but it's still put together with clever perfection and a hilarious script. It's just one big entertaining romp through greed, vanity, and ignorance, and it is fantastic fun.

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