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Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading is that rare satirical thriller--a devilish, delicious, diabolically dark, irreverent and insanely funny movie that could only have come from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen.


Following on the heels of the deep cynicism of their Oscar winning, No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have crafted an original screenplay that falls back on the kind of human satire they have exploited so well in past efforts like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. This screwball comedy with a sharp, cutting edge includes: an ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), who has just been fired; a couple of Washington D.C. gym trainers Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand); a womanizing Federal Marshall named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney); and assorted other nutcases, who all collide when a lost computer disc with supposedly top secret material winds up in the wrong hands. After the depressed and alcoholic Cox is axed from his CIA job, he retreats to his home to start working on his memoirs, while his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is secretly having an affair with the married Harry. Meanwhile, Linda and Chad find they have stumbled on to Cox's lost CIA disc and set about to making this find worth their while. Suffice to say the complications and character mix-ups just keep piling up as the Coens' story plunges into the darker side of human nature.


This dream cast is to die for. Clooney and Pitt don't get to share many scenes, a la their Oceans films, but both go for the jugular and get big laughs playing rather dumb. Pitt, in particular, hits just the right notes as a dopey fitness trainer, who stumbles onto what he thinks is the equivalent of buried treasure. Leaning on deft physical comedy he excels as the looney Chad. Clooney also has some prize moments, including one of pure hysteria opposite his buddy Brad's Chad. McDormand as usual is sublimely amusing as Linda, a woman who is obsessed with her plans to get massive plastic surgery, while at the same time trying to find the right man in a series of Internet dates. As Ted, the gym manager with a secret crush on Linda, Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) continues his amazing run this year ably capturing the cautious Ted, who warns his pair of employees repeatedly that they are asking for big trouble. Last year's supporting Oscar winner for Michael Clayton, the enormously talented Tilda Swinton is back opposite Clooney in a very different way, hopping into bed in an illicit affair that shows off the Clayton duo in surprising ways. Malkovich is outrageous, threatening and takes his high-pitched performance way over the top--and is a lot of fun to watch. Special mention also to veteran actors David Rasche and J.K. Simmons as a pair of CIA operatives.


The Coen Brothers have done it again, proving that when they are on their game, they may be the most daring and audacious directors since Stanley Kubrick. Certainly, they are as versatile, and if Burn After Reading doesn't hit the heights of a Dr. Strangelove level satire, it's a lot more than most filmmakers even want to attempt these days. Trying to balance alternating dark and screwball comedy and getting their superstar cast to play it all straight is no easy task, but it's one the Coens have pulled off here. This is a cinematic soufflé that could have imploded in lesser hands but the juggling of all the twists and turns these characters take is expertly handled. Following up an awards magnet like No Country for Old Men, the brothers have wisely turned to the kind of quirky sideshow that turned their Big Lebowski into such a cult hit. Burn won't be for every taste, but it's well worth the ride for those who don't like their comedy pat and predictable.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.