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Friday, September 26, 2008

Burn After Reading

There are two kinds of Coen brothers films: grand, sweeping epics like No Country for Old Men,, Fargo and Oh Brother Where Art Thou (to name a few) and lighter, throwaway films like The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy. Their latest, Burn After Reading, definitely qualifies as a throwaway—but that’s not to say it isn’t funny.

Burn After Reading is a spy movie about one of the Coens’ favorite topics: a crime gone horrible and comically awry. An exiled CIA agent named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) loses a CD with his memoirs on it. A lonely, self loathing gym attendant (Francis McDormand) finds it and thinks it’s classified information. She and her dim but enthusiastic coworker (Brad Pitt) decide to blackmail Malkovich in order to pay for the plastic surgery that McDormand is convinced she needs in order to find love. She manages to find lust with a U.S. Marshall (George Clooney) who cheats on his wife with anything that moves, including Osbourne Cox’s icy wife (Tilda Swinton). Of course, the blackmail goes wrong, things spiral out of control and everyone ends up worse off than they began.

What really saves Burn After Reading from being a flop is the performances. Clooney reigns in the goofiness enough to be funny without turning into a human cartoon; Pitt manages to channel the golden streaks, enthusiasm and naivete of golden retriever; Swinton is the most hatable she’s ever been; Malkovich is crusty and whisky-soaked as the conceited, patrician Osbourne Cox. In the end, the whole thing turns out to be a big shaggy dog story with liberal streak of nihilism. Although the film has some dark touches, the directorial touch is light enough to make it work. I thought it was pretty entertaining, with splashes of brilliance. While it doesn’t really break any new ground, it’s a fun way to spend ninety minutes of your time.


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