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Rated 3.06 stars
by 400 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Counter-Intelligent Community
by Jeffrey Chen

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen could direct a movie like Burn After Reading in their sleep, and I don't mean that as a slight. Filled with their most reliable ingredients, it could be considered a quintessential Coen Bros. film. It's about a crime instigated by regular people who are in way over their heads, and the crime goes wrong. Its characters have exaggerated comic personalities, and almost all of them could be considered buffoonish. The shots are beautiful, the timing of the comedy well-measured, and it features a goofy George Clooney and the lovely and funny Frances McDormand. Plus it's unpredictable and saturated with situational irony.

The Coens delight in spotlighting a group or class of people to show how their collective inability to transcend the banal muck of the human condition often results in a tangled mess of lives lived pathetically -- which the brothers then mine for juicy black comedy. This time, their sights are set on no less than Washington D.C., illustrated here as a hotbed of relationship failures and infidelity, possibly a by-product of a town driven by career ambitions. Curiously, no politicians get skewered in this story -- the main government cogs who get misery visited upon them are an ex-low level CIA agent (John Malkovich) and a Treasury officer (Clooney). Add their wives into the mix, throw in some normal schmoes -- two employees at a local gym, one chipper (Brad Pitt) and one in personal crisis (McDormand) -- and add one lost data CD containing info mistaken for secret government information, and, well, expect no one to get away clean.

The specificity of locale here doesn't seem to have too much weight in terms of the actual plot threads -- much of this could have happened in a different city, with a similar McGuffin. The Coens, though, do construct light satire out of the idea that the CIA, and the business of government spies and secrets in general, had endured an era of romanticization which  currently has ridiculous lasting effects in today's reality. Hence, the Malkovich character, Osborne Cox, is seen as a grunt who, despite possessing an inflated sense of righteousness, never really did anything important, and who now drinks as he gets frustrated because he has nothing, really, to base his proposed memoirs on. Meanwhile, Pitt as Chad and McDormand as Linda think the data disc is the fast track to a cash reward. When things don't go their way, they threaten to turn the info in to the Russian embassy, to which all who are covertly following their activities remark in puzzlement, "Russia?"

To get the most of their environment, the Coens subject their characters to plenty of petty espionage. Linda concocts plans to sneak into Cox's brownstone to gather more blackmail info. Clooney's Harry is constantly being followed by someone driving a car who doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word "inconspicuous." And because, eventually, death is involved and a link made to the former agent Cox, the CIA begins to keep track of the proceedings, although they realize nothing particularly significant is happening or being compromised.

All this sneaking around creates the sensation that Washington agencies aren't doing much more than spinning their wheels, but, as alluded to earlier, this observation is made mainly for the sake of farce. The movie rides on its characters, who are all a hoot as they compete against each other in expressing outrageousness and outright pitiful human sadness. McDormand comes across as surprisingly sympathetic for playing such a sad sack, one in late middle age hopelessly looking for a mate via internet sites and desperately seeking cosmetic surgery to increase her chances. Clooney is also by turns funny and sad as a serial womanizer who still retains a vulnerable spot for his wife. Tilda Swinton seems at home playing Cox's wife, a merciless ice queen, and Richard Jenkins emerges as perhaps the saddest of the lot, a gym manager with an unrequited affection.

But the scene stealers here are Pitt and Malkovich. Pitt's appearance may be less weighed down by pity, and his character appears the most shallowly drawn, yet he attacks the part with sheer silly abandon. Malkovich, meanwhile, is in total Malkovich mode, going quite psycho, and the more he angrily spits his lines, the funnier he gets. The whole cast revels in the Coen playground, what the brothers have once referred to as "their own little corner of the sandbox," and so the mix of exaggerated comedy paired with the piteousness and folly of these characters is carried off with sharpness and verve.

Carter Burwell's ironically ominous, Moonlight Sonata-like score gives Burn After Reading the undertone of a movie like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, but it works as perfect ballast for the black wackiness of the comedy. The whole thing is balanced and polished, and maybe for the first time, the Coens acknowledge they are conscious of who they are and what they offer to their audiences. Not only is the movie a new tasty dish of their brand of twisted tragicomedy, it actually contains a gag where a movie audience guffaws at a pandering romantic comedy (starring Dermot Mulroney!). The Coens declare war on the mundane, and they hope you will join them.

(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.)

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