Andy Bockelman: ‘Burn After Reading’ marks a return to Coens’ familiar zaniness
September 17, 2008
In an age when government incompetence requires exposure, “Burn After Reading” allows audiences to re-examine the wording of Central Intelligence Agency.
Outraged after being let go from his position as a CIA agent, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) decides to write his memoirs. The process is slow, because of Cox’s rampant alcoholism and marital troubles.
His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), has been carrying on an affair with her husband’s associate, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), and is considering divorce.
Elsewhere, gym trainer Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is desperate for money to get cosmetic surgery to improve her career and her love life.
Their stories all come together when Linda’s co-worker, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), discovers a disc containing the Coxes’ personal information.
Mistakenly thinking the data to be a lynchpin preserving national security, Chad and Linda hatch a scheme for personal fulfillment that also could result in major geo-political changes. Or not.
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Renowned ladies man Clooney makes a fine spectacle of himself as philandering Harry, constantly paranoid not only because of the ultra-adulterous lifestyle he hides from his wife (Elizabeth Marvel), but also his heavily scrutinized position in the Treasury Department. McDormand is wonderfully quirky as Linda, whose fragile self-image leads her down a dangerous path of torrid romances and accidental espionage. Malkovich is likably loathsome as drunken mess Cox whose short fuse proves to be disastrous. “Michael Collins” Oscar-winner Swinton is good as his cold, cheating wife, although Katie has virtually no uniqueness. Fortunately, Pitt’s bombastic presence compensates for this as he bounces off the walls as exercise addict Chad, a male bimbo complete with dopey blond highlights that emphasize the character’s idiocy.
Zaniness, thy name is Coen. Filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan follow up their dark masterpiece, “No Country for Old Men,” with a whiz-bang comedy twist on the spy thriller genre. Their knack for writing extremely offbeat personality traits is second to none, and the return of regulars McDormand – Joel’s wife – and Clooney only enhances this talent. If not for such distinctive characters, the story would have no drive, but this is a rather deceptive ploy on the part of the Coens. Their intentions are to ape the self-importance of political intrigue films by peppering their latest work with a faux dramatic musical score and inverted voyeuristic camera angles before finally concluding with a decidedly circuitous finale. Admittedly, not all the details work – the trademark Coen violence is sporadic and unmemorable, and the less said about Harry’s disturbing crafts project the better, although it is an uproarious exercise in shock value.
The skewed nature of “Burn After Reading” is what makes it worth watching. Although not as all-encompassing as “Fargo” or as novel as “The Big Lebowski,” it certainly is worthy of the Coen brand.