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September 17, 2008 > Movie Review: Burn After Reading

Movie Review: Burn After Reading

A Film Review by Jeremy Inman

Directed by: Ethan and Joel Coen
Rated: R

I wasn't sure what to expect from Burn After Reading, the latest film from the Brothers Coen. The trailer suggested a throwback to the comedic chops that made The Big Lebowski one of the most hilarious films in recent memory, but the subject matter had a hint of the macabre the likes of which made the Coen Bros. film Fargo so spellbinding.

The truth wound up being a mixture of the two; a convoluted plot filled with mostly-likable characters making its way cleverly across the screen. Burn After Reading balances a cadre of pedigreed actors playing hilariously real personalities. There's George Clooney as a philandering ex-bodyguard, John Malkovich as a restless and disillusioned CIA operative, Tilda Swinton as his bored wife, and Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as idiotic gym employees in over their heads.

To say anything about the plot is almost too much. In a nutshell - through a few fluke incidents - Chad and Linda (Pitt and McDormand) find themselves in possession of what would appear to be top-level government secrets belonging to a Mr. Osborne Cox (Malkovich). In an attempt to coerce a reward out of Cox, Chad and Linda wind up almost inadvertently blackmailing him, sending them down a path strewn with dangers the neither foresee nor could have fathomed given their limited mental capacity. The film spirals out of control as the various personalities either directly or tangentially connected to the files wound up sucked into the vortex of stupidity and selfishness, ending in classically Coen fashion.

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't certain what to expect from this film, as trailers can often be deceiving. In the case of Burn After Reading, which was heavily marketed as a comedy, I can say that, yes, I indeed laughed quite consistently throughout the film. But I wouldn't call it a strict comedy. Like Fargo, there are some very dark scenes in this film, one of which causes a complete shift in tone from lighthearted fun comedy to edge-of-your-seat uneasiness about halfway through the film. From then on, anything can happen, and it's this uneasiness that adds, in its own way, to the comedy.

Every performance here is top notch; audiences will particularly love Pitt's charming, innocent stupidity enough to overlook how obnoxious his character really is. McDormand's Linda is likable despite her very apparently superficial motivations and Clooney plays a lovably broken cheating husband.

Burn After Reading combines a number of Coen Bros. trademark strengths in a manner that fans of any of their previous work will appreciate. As a follow-up to No Country for Old Men, it's definitely lighter fair, but not so light as to tread into Ladykillers territory. No, the Coen Bros. are moving along nicely now and it seems as though they've hit another groove; I expect there's plenty more to come.

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