Last year, the Coen Brothers finally found their maker when they won several Oscars for the stirring film No Country for Old Men. One of the best movies of 2007, though in my opinion not the best, No Country seems to have propelled Joel and Ethan to a new level of a popularity. In other words, the Coen brothers could make Disaster Movie and people would have lined up in droves. Thankfully, they decided to put their brains together for more original fare, like the idiotic comedy-thriller Burn After Reading.
Burn After Reading is a clever movie about how a job firing and divorce proceeding leads to a comedy of errors that gets the CIA involved, relationships destroyed and people dead. Too bad the Coen brothers, even with their renewed popularity, couldn't get any big names into their film. All the dual directors could muster up was Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the movie is about a couple of idiotic fitness club employees (McDormand and Pitt) who stumble across a CD that contains what they believe to be top secret spy information. While the files do belong to a CIA analyst (Malkovich), they aren't nearly as important as first expected - but that doesn't stop them from starting a cat-and-mouse game between the CIA, the Russians, and a variety of people that "all seem to be sleeping with each other."
As with most Coen brother comedies, Burn After Reading is at times inconsistent. There are stretches where things aren't all that funny, but the directors are more concerned about the overall effect of the movie rather than the hilariousness of each little scene. While not perfect, Burn After Reading does seem to be the movie the Coens set out to make. It has its laughs, it has a lot of weird characters and a goofy plot that most writers could only dream of pulling off. And, unlike No Country, it has an ending that wraps everything up all nice and neat.
What really makes Burn After Reading is the actors, though. While Swinton really doesn't get much to do, the rest of the leading cast - and some smaller members as well - really pull out all the stops. McDormand, a Coen brothers regular, is great. Malkovich, while not quite up to Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Charlie Wilson's War, also plays the eccentric spy quite well. The real stars, though, are Pitt and Clooney, both of whom turn in pitch-perfect performances. Pitt's exuberant, bumbling character is classic; from his hairdo to his zany mannerisms, this is one of his most memorable performances to date. As for Clooney, how many other actors could pull off a womanizing yet socially awkward government employee with nervously twitching eyes and paranoid delusions? Clooney has always excelled in playing the smart-idiot (another Coen brothers movie comes to mind), and he has done it again here.
David Rasche and J.K. Simmons also turn in great, memorable performances as two not-overly concerned CIA agents. In fact, their comedic timing is so perfect that their few scenes are some of the best of the movie.
Burn After Reading is an enjoyable and funny film if you like offbeat, quirky comedies, though at 96 minutes, it still feels a bit long at times. The movie picks up in the final act, but there are a few stretches that could have used some tinkering. Nevertheless, though not without its flaws, Burn After Reading is an entertaining, early-fall entry to theaters.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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