Screenwriters: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich
Running Time: 96 mins
After all the chin stroking and deep, furrow-browed contemplation prompted by their Oscar-laden thriller No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers slap us between the eyes with a creamy custard pie of a film noir. Although set amongst the US intelligence community, the plot of Burn After Reading is driven by the woeful miscalculations and general, overwhelming stupidity of its main players. Leading the way are George Clooney, Brad Pitt and John Malkovich who, like the filmmakers, aim to send themselves up and accomplish the mission with flair and precision.
An absurdly fateful chain of events begins with veteran CIA analyst Osborne Cox getting his marching orders. Malkovich sinks his teeth into the part like a rabid dog, lashing out at his superiors who accuse him of having a drinking problem. It’s a typically Coenesque moment when the colourful ravings of a lunatic are met with quiet, businesslike decorum. This is, after all, the CIA. Dejected, Cox finds another outlet for his frustrations by writing a memoir, although this invites ridicule from his shrew of a wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). She is having an affair with married lawman Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), which seems like a superfluous point, until later on.
Across town at the Hardbodies Gym, Linda Litzke (a downcast Frances McDormand) is frustrated in her attempts to justify cosmetic surgery as a business expense. But when hyperactive fitness trainer Chad (Brad Pitt) finds a CD belonging to Cox, containing what appear to be government secrets, it’s a virtual blank cheque. Chad is first to spot this moneymaking opportunity, despite being a muscle-head, and in a hilarious scene, calls Cox to ask for a reward. Being paranoid by profession, Cox misinterprets his inane jabbering as a blackmail attempt.
Suddenly, the wheels are in rapid motion for a half-cocked Hitchcockian thriller where the CD becomes less important than the confusion surrounding it. There comes a point when nobody knows what they’re chasing or why, brilliantly exemplified by J.K. Simmons as a blank-faced CIA boss struggling to ‘monitor’ the situation. You’ll feel his pain, especially in the first half hour when there is much to take in. It then tips very quickly into madcap action. It appears that even the Coens are slightly overtaken by events, relying on coincidence to tie the loose strands.
At times this noir is a little too nutty and we don’t have a character to laugh with as much as laugh at, so it doesn’t have the same bountiful charm as The Big Lebowksi. Still, there are plenty of inspired, blackly funny moments that could only spring from the two heads of Coen. It needs a dangerously sharp intellect to stage this carnival of idiocy without insulting viewers' intelligence. The brothers may present it as throwaway entertainment, but every gag feels lovingly crafted, finely tuned and perfectly timed. Furthermore, given how inept the CIA have been in recent political crises - and let's not forget, these are the people who tried to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar - the story isn't wholly implausible.
Coen fans will also enjoy their distinct brand of whip-cracking dialogue, which is almost musical in its rhythms. Pitt gets the swing of it after a hesitant start and his phone-call to Cox stands as one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Clooney, a gifted comic actor, looks at home from the get-go with another take on his ‘Dapper Dan Man’ previously seen in the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty. In the end, the only thing we know for sure is that everybody is having a blast and, even if it is utterly inconsequential, such an experience is hard to forget. Just ask Fidel...
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