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Rated 3.1 stars
by 246 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Divinely Goofy
by Adam Hakari

With Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers deliver a very funny mishmash of everything from Internet dating to the world of spies and intelligence, executing the whole shebang in a divinely goofy way only these talented siblings could pull off.

Though the story is much more intricate than the trailers would lead you to believe, Burn After Reading isn't too hard to understand once you get into the swing of things. Having been ousted from his cushy position as an intelligence analyst thanks to a drinking problem, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) plans to get back at his treacherous superiors by writing a tell-all memoir. At the same time, his frigid wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is forming early plans to divorce her hubby and run off with Treasury Agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). That means copying his hard drive to get hold of his financial records, but the disc containing such info ends up in the hands of two gym employees, body-conscious Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and terminal doofus Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Thinking Osborne's memoirs are valuable government secrets, the pair sets about getting whatever cash they can in exchange for the disc, setting the government off on a frantic quest to find out what in the world is going on.

What do I like most about the Coens? Not only are their films more character-based than focused so much on story mechanics, but they direct them in such a way  you hardly notice (or, for that matter, care). Burn After Reading comes across as all madness with just enough method, a flurry of offbeat personalities swirling about one another, with the right amount of wrangling on behalf of the Coens to make it coherent in the end. Admittedly, it's not the most accessible of storytelling styles. There's no real point to the film, nor does it wrap things up with a nice little lesson at the end. Some viewers will dig this approach, while others will be like the guy I overheard proclaiming it one of the worst movies he's ever seen. In any case, you can be assured the Coens will never leave you bored, as their way of quickly crisscrossing from subplot to subplot is actually part of the film's charm. Burn After Reading firmly establishes itself as an "anything goes" type of feature, and if the story has a general aim or goal in mind, it's to turn the stuffy and overly serious spy genre on its ear.

Of course, not one moment of the movie would be as hilarious or involving as it is without the efforts of its awesome cast. Fitting in with the story's unpredictable spirit, the characters all inhabit certain archtypes you think you have pinned down, only to be shown that they don't develop exactly the way you think they will.  Clooney's Pfarrer is like a warped version of his Oscar-winning role in Syriana, flashing grins all across the screen as an increasingly paranoid government man with a penchant for jogging and picking up women online. McDormand and Pitt make  a great team, and Pitt gives an especially great performance as a lunkhead who has no clue how over his head he's in. Malkovich has lots of fun playing what comes closest to being the movie's smartest character. The only actor who let me down was Swinton, whose ice queen act felt like it was running on autopilot. It's one of my few complaints with the film (that, plus the fact that the rather sudden ending manages to out-abrupt the one in the Coens' No Country for Old Men).

The Coen Brothers have for years been my favorite filmmakers, if only because I've seen all of their films, and haven't disliked a single one. Just add Burn After Reading to the mantle, a shining example to a kind of energy and creativity that other directors can only hope to imitate in their lifetimes.

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

MY RATING: *** 1/2 (out of ****)

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