MOVIEREVIEW- Burn after reading: Sly Coen brothers hit paydirt again
It seems fitting for the makers of last year's big award-winner to kick off this year's "serious season" at the movies, and being who they are, Joel and Ethan Coen do so in high comic style.
Be aware that September and October traditionally bring a lot of sheep in award-contender clothing– films that could have had class, could have been contenders, but somehow missed the mark; so they're released in also-ran slots while the heavy hitters wait for November and December.
Presented with such a heavy analysis the Coens would probably say, "Who cares? Here's our movie."
And here it is indeed– a darkly comic look at the CIA, gyms, romance, and divorce. If you don't laugh at least once a minute, you should spend your time attending funerals, where you'll fit in better.
Having written a brilliant screenplay that will be deconstructed by writing classes for decades, the Coens proceed to have fun with it. And their cast has fun with it. The presence of George Clooney and Brad Pitt invites comparisons to the Ocean's movies. Burn gives the same impression of the actors enjoying themselves, but it's more cerebral, less action-oriented, and with very R-rated language.
CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is taken off the Balkans desk because he has a drinking problem. "I have a drinking problem?" he yells at a co-worker between "WTF?"s. "You're a Mormon. Next to you everybody has a drinking problem."
Cox goes home and tells wife Katie (Tilda Swinton)– when he can get her to listen– that he quit and will stay home and write his memoirs. She doesn't care, because she's thinking of leaving Cox for her lover, Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a former bodyguard who works for the Treasury Department. Harry doesn't encourage her, because he's just in it for the fun, and she's not much fun anymore. Besides, there's nothing wrong with his wife, children's book author Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). He just likes variety.
At Hardbodies, manager Ted (Richard Jenkins) has a crush on Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who's upset because their HMO won't pay for the cosmetic surgery she wants. When the janitor finds a CD in the women's locker room, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) discovers it's full of classified information and tracks it to Osborne Cox. He and Linda think they can blackmail Cox into paying to get the disc back, or if not they can sell it to the Russians. (The latter twist was probably funnier when it was written, before the Russkies became bad guys again.)
Oblivious to Ted, who loves her as she is, Linda looks for computer dates and lucks into Harry, who doesn't put all his eggs into just two baskets.
From there things get a little complicated and a little violent, while mostly staying funny. Cox's CIA superior (David Rasche) details the events they know about to his boss (JK Simmons), a straight-faced, strait-laced type who says, "Report back to me when it makes sense."
All the characters are cartoonish to some extent. The only actor I had trouble with is Pitt, who seems to be playing a character about half his age and– especially in his first scene– possibly gay. It's a good-natured spoofing of airheaded gymbots, and maybe we should let it go at that.
And when Harry unveils the mystery project he's been building in his basement– no, I won't spoil that surprise for you.
In a perfect world, marriages would last forever, HMOs would cover all our medical expenses– and there would be no comedy. Since the world isn't perfect, let's be glad we have the Coen Brothers to find the humor in it. Burn after Reading is no movie for old men who don't like to laugh.