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Burn After Reading   B

Focus Features

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins.

Review by Rob Vaux

When a filmmaker (or even a pair of them) walks off with a trio of Oscars, they can be forgiven if their next effort feels like a bit of a letdown. Joel and Ethan Coen, having scored the hat trick with No Country for Old Men, wisely decide not to top themselves with their follow-up. Instead they settle for what could charitably called one of their goof-off films: silly, lightweight shaggy dogs which slowly go nowhere and have a lot of fun doing it. They bring some of their best buddies along, most of them laden with Oscars and Oscar noms of their own. No one presumes to be doing career-best work here by a long shot. And yet, as a cynical bit of knockabout fun, it has more than its share of good qualities.

Location plays a key role in most of the Coens' films. With the exception of the unnamed city in Miller's Crossing, all of them are set in a specific time and place which have direct influence on the proceedings. Here, it's Washington, D.C. -- a Byzantine morass of players and would-be players who think their actions have profound meaning solely because they live inside the Beltway. Their hubristic confusion leads to one of the directors' beloved Chinese fire drills: stunning complexity wrapped around a core of human stupidity. A CIA analyst (John Malkovich) is fired from his job. He responds by preparing a tell-all memoir while his ice queen wife (Tilda Swinton) plots divorce. She's seeing a not-especially-bright federal marshal (George Clooney) on the side, while said marshal finds himself followed by a man in a black sedan for reasons he can't entirely grasp. Then a disk full of the analyst's notes pops up at the local health club, discovered by its dipshit employees (including Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who figure it's full of big-time national security stuff. They scheme to sell it off and make a chunk of change, if not to the analyst, then to some foreign power happy to pay for "serious spy shit" like that. Mayhem of a suspiciously wacky nature ensues.

The targets remain broad, as they do in most of the brothers' comedies, but still hold a great deal of truth. The characters here are uniformly self-absorbed, cheerfully using others for their own ends and blithely assuming that the world revolves around them. Deceit runs rampant as well: everyone's having affairs, and the dating service to which McDormand's character belongs seems populated exclusively by married men. Add the intelligence game into the mix and their narcissism quickly descends into bug-eyed paranoia, sound and fury conjured by their own petty insecurities and signifying absolutely nothing. The real spies sit behind desks at Langley trying to figure out what the hell is going on, while the folks onscreen play Junior G-Man and feed the delusion that their actions actually have meaning.

Mostly, however, Burn After Reading is an excuse to behave absurdly. Aided by the Coens' sleek comic timing, the cast has a ball bringing out their inner nitwits. A few moments of typically harsh violence catch the laughter by the throat, but otherwise, it basically serves as a contest to see who can have more fun being silly. Pitt takes it by a country mile. His fitness instructor Chad Feldheimer is one of the film's more innocent characters, a supremely self-confident idiot who never quite figures out how much trouble he's in. Clooney makes a decent also-ran by riffing on his Oscar-winning turn in Syriana: the befuddled target of a Byzantine plot which turns out to be a lot dumber than it appears.

The Coens contribute to the mood with a few pointed departures from their usual camerawork. Stationary fly-on-the-wall shots crop up amid their standard swooping pans and zooms, intended as a sly send-up of "grittier" spy films. At the same time, they also fall into patches of over-indulgence: their story meanders all over the landscape and their talented cast sometimes lingers a bit too long on specific eccentricities. Were the film more high-minded, that might have been troubling. As it is, it hardly matters. Burn After Reading aims for nothing but a few subversive giggles, which it delivers handily over the course of a quick 96 minutes. It's tough to hold its essentially fluffy nature against it. No Country is just a Netflix queue away and more substantive fare can wait until later in the season. For now, a dark little jab in the ribs -- courtesy of the movie world's experts on the subject -- feels right at home.

Review published 09.12.2008.

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