‘Burn After Reading’ zany, yet poignant
September 12, 2008
The Coen brothers Burn After Reading is a screwball comedy that occasionally becomes something more. The characters are zany, the plot coils upon itself with dizzy zeal, and the roles seem like a perfect fit for the actors yes, even Brad Pitt, as Chad, a gum-chewing, fuzzy-headed physical fitness instructor. Ive always thought of him as a fine actor, but here he reveals a dimension that, shall I say, we havent seen before.What do I mean about something more? There is a poignance in the roles played by Frances McDormand and George Clooney, both looking for love in all the wrong places. She plays Linda Litzke, one of Chads fellow instructors, and is looking for her perfect match on the Web. This despite her conviction that shes far from perfect. In a scene of astonishing frankness (using a body double, I think) she submits to a merciless going-over by a plastic surgeon, and decides to have some work done on her thighs, abdomen, breasts, underarms and eyes. Ive gotten about as far as this body can take me, she decides.Clooney is a happily married man, if only he knew it, named Harry Pfarrer. (Its one of those Jack Lemmony kind of names that sound like a cough, but I dont remember anyone saying it in the movie.) Harry also looks for dates on the Web, and, in general terms, will happily date anyone. He and Linda meet and seem to like each other, and then Linda and Chad find a computer disc at the gym. They read it and find it belongs to a CIA man named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), who has just been fired for alcoholism. Cox is married to Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is also having an affair with Harry. You see how it goes.No need to describe the plot. It goes around and around and comes out here, there, everywhere. All nicely put together, of course, but as an exercise, not an imperative. The movies success depends on the characters and the dialogue. Linda and Chad, who remind me a little of Rupert and Masha in The King of Comedy, try to peddle their disc to the Russian embassy. Anything to raise money for that plastic surgery. The CIA, baffled, gets involved. A gung-ho officer (David Rasche), confused but determined, reports to his CIA boss (J.K. Simmons, Junos dad). The boss doesnt have much dialogue, but every line is a punch line.The Malkovich character is a right proper SOB, one of those drunks who thinks hes not an alcoholic because he prudently watches the second hand on the clock until its precisely 5 oclock. Hes a snarky, shaved-headed, bowtie-wearing misanthrope who would be utterly amazed if he knew how his files got into the hands of two peons at a gym. As for Clooney, in one movie hes the improbably handsome, super-intelligent hero, and in the next, hes the forlorn doofus. You wouldnt believe what hes constructing in his basement. The Coens say that this film completes their idiot trilogy with Clooney, after O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Clooney as an idiot? As to the manner born.Frances McDormand is wonderful. Here she channels a little of the go-getter determination of her police chief in Fargo. Shes innocent of deep thoughts, but nothing can stop her. From the first time I noticed her, in a great scene with Gene Hackman in Mississipi Burning, she has had that rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.This is not a great Coen brothers film. Nor is it one of their bewildering excursions off the deep end. Its funny, sometimes delightful, sometimes a little sad, with dialogue that sounds perfectly logical until you listen a little more carefully and realize all of these people are mad. The movie is only 96 minutes long. Thats long enough for a movie, but this time, I dunno, I thought the end felt like it arrived a little arbitrarily. I must be wrong, because I cant figure out what could have followed next. Not even the device in the basement would have been around for another chapter.
Burn After Reading Focus Features presents a film written, directed and edited by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki. Music by Carter Burwell. Running time: 96 minutes. Classified: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence). Rated: Three stars.
Neely TuckerThe Washington PostWashington is a mean little world peopled by third-level bureaucrats, randy federal marshals, over-intellectualized Ivy Leaguers, shadowy CIA types and gym workers selling secrets to the Soviets.But you knew that!Still, this is your nations capital in Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers follow-up to last years Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men.CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is told that he is being demoted and transferred, in part because he has a drinking problem.Outraged, he quits, retreats to his posh Georgetown rowhouse to have a drink and tell his wife (Tilda Swinton), who is throwing a party for Sandy and Harry Pfarrer (Elizabeth Marvel and George Clooney). Harry is having an affair with Mrs. Cox.Osborne, a yacht-owning Princeton alum whos convinced hes the smartest guy in town (we told you this was more fact than fiction), reacts to his career crisis by dictating his memoirs. These wind up at Hardbodies Gym and in the hands of dense personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and his upbeat colleague Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who demand a little from Cox for the return of his classified material.This is Joel and Ethan Coen in their violent goofball comedy mode, which, when it works, has made them favorites since Raising Arizona two decades ago and led to their best film, Fargo. They can also do dark-but-entertaining, as in No Country.Sometimes the films land somewhere in between, yielding such teeth-grinders as the The Hudsucker Proxy or gasp Burn After Reading.Oh, the high-octane cast works hard. But theres nothing to suggest anybody off camera tried that hard, which is fatal to a Coen outing.