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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 9.18.08





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Overtly Covert

New Coens film is funny, familiar

by Jason Blair

BURN AFTER READING: Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki. Music, Carter Burwell. Starring George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt. Focus Features, 2008. R. 96 minutes.

Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading

Moviegoers will recognize the moment of panic I had when, as the house lights drew down for Burn After Reading, I became convinced I was seated in the wrong auditorium. Call it déjà view, a sensation occasioned by any number of factors, including age, multiplex overstimulation or the woozies from theater candy. Occasionally, the film itself is to blame, unfastening itself in such a familiar-but-unfamiliar way that I can’t help thinking the movie I intended to watch is actually 14 auditoriums away. Such was the case with the new Coen brothers film. Even for an espionage satire like Burn After Reading, the opening sequence — a satellite view of Earth that plunges down to a particular set of buildings — is such a dull thud of filmmaking cliché that I almost returned to the lobby to recalibrate. I’ve seen enough Coen films to expect the unexpected, but I never, ever expect the familiar.

Fortunately, we’re swiftly introduced to Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who brightens Burn After Reading with an incendiary reaction to getting sacked. (“You’re an alcoholic,” says a supervisor, to which Cox replies, “You’re a Mormon!”) From here a series of betrayals unfolds during which nothing goes according to plan: Cox’s wife, the coldhearted Katie (Tilda Swinton), decides to abandon her unemployed spouse, copying his hard drive as a preamble to divorce proceedings against him. The CD contains Cox’s milquetoast memoir, and it winds up in a Hardbodies fitness gym, where employees Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) become convinced the CD is their meal ticket — or at least a down payment on multiple plastic surgeries for Linda. Linking this “league of morons,” as Cox puts it, is Harry (George Clooney), a sex-addicted, flooring-obsessed serial seducer who happens to be dating both Katie and Linda. “It’s messy,” says the CIA boss tracking the shenanigans, and he doesn’t know the half of it, which is the point.

Dark, moody and meandering, Burn After Reading is a comedy about the greedy side of our nature. Thus it shares a theme with the best Coen comedies — The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Raising Arizona — even as it exhibits the broadness of their lesser material like Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. All the familiar Coen trademarks are here, such as surveillance and counter-surveillance, blackmail by dimwits and lots of smoke signals that go profoundly misread, but without any of the pathos needed to soften the bleak material. In many ways, Burn is a close cousin to The Big Lebowski, their masterpiece of bowling and mistaken identity. Lebowski is a buddy film about male bonding — perhaps the buddy film for our times — but it’s also sweet, never shallow, and doesn’t fall back on violence, as does Burn. Lebowski had a style, a recognizable milieu. Burn has no native style, very little music and even worse, seems to care little for its cast of me-first misfits. 

Still, the performances almost redeem the film, and for that reason, Burn After Reading should be seen by those interested in how great performances — even in an ensemble film — cannot by themselves pull a wayward movie back into orbit. Swinton plays essentially the same reprehensible role as in Michael Clayton; in this context, she seems less mechanical. Malkovich uncorks a beautiful tirade in every scene in which he appears. Watching him escalate is one of the great pleasures of Burn. Pitt’s on something of a roll: Having turned in arguably his best dramatic performance in last year’s Assassination of Jesse James, in Burn After Reading, Pitt gives his best comic performance since Floyd the stoner in True Romance. Clooney is in standard Coens mode, meaning he’s twitchy but eventually finds something to work with. McDormand overplays her disturbingly upbeat role, allowing the great Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man) to steal the show.

A satire so wide it barely registers, Burn After Reading will be remembered as the light comedy that bridged No Country for Old Men and whatever the Coens direct next.

Burn After Reading is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15