Burn After Reading

  The dark comedies of the Coen Brothers are decidedly not for everybody. In fact some of them are not for me. A dim view of human nature and an anarchic sense of storytelling don’t make for traditional comic romps like Bringing up Baby. They are more into acid satires where the venality and stupidity of the main characters is rewarded in gruesomely ironic ways. Or maybe they get what they want; as I said, the Coen Brothers are anarchists at heart.
  So even their lightest comedies are not exactly escapism.
  The plot of Burn After Reading is so labyrinthine, I’m not sure I can describe it adequately without giving away the whole movie. Where to even start? Is it with Osborne Cox, played by John Malkovich, an alcoholic CIA analyst, who gets moved out of his position, quits and decides to write a tell all memoir? Is it with his wife Katie Cox, played to icy perfection by Tilda Swinton, who wants a divorce so she can be with her lover Harry Pfarrer played as a doofus by George Clooney? Katie breaks into her husband’s computer and copies all of his financial records on the advice of her divorce lawyer.  At the same time she gets the notes for his book. The CD it’s stored on winds up in a locker at Hardbodies, a DC area fitness club, where Chad Feldheimer, played with emptyheaded glee by Brad Pitt and Linda Litzke, played by Frances McDormand, find it and attempt to blackmail Osborne.
  Hilarity ensues.
  Burn After Reading is far from the Coen brother’s best, even among their comedies.  And after the universally acclaimed masterpiece No Country for Old Men it seems light and frivolous. But there are some great performances here. McDormand wins sympathy as a frumpy femme fatale who cares a little bit about what happens to the people she uses to get her way, but not enough to change her behavior. John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox with impressive but ultimately impotent rage.
  The great J.K. Simmons, playing a CIA supervisor, who hears about all these doings in briefings by Cox’s old boss, says at the end of the film, “What did we learn from this? Not to do it again, I guess. Although for the life of me I don’t know what we did.”
  That about sums up the theme of Burn After Reading.


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September 2008
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