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Light Reading

The Coen Brothers have talent to Burn
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 9, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading | Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen | With Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and J.K. Simmons | Focus Features | 91 minutes
Every now and then so-called independent filmmakers have to make money and prove to the studios that they have some traction at the box office. And so Paul Greengrass will make his Jason Bourne thrillers and Steven Soderbergh will spin out his Ocean confections. Somewhere between the cinematic grit of the former and the contrived inconsequentiality of the latter lies the Coen Brothers’ post–No Country for Old Men palate cleanser. Fitfully brilliant and irredeemably silly, Burn After Reading entertains without wrinkling any brows or ruffling any feathers.

If you set your mind to it, of course, you can find ways to be offended. The joky attitude toward the bankrupt US intelligence agencies responsible for most of today’s foreign-policy woes and domestic uneasiness might seem a little trivializing. These guys, the filmmakers suggest, are just a bunch of Coen-esque freaks and losers like those in Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski.

Osborne Cox (it says a lot about a film when John Malkovich puts in the most restrained performance), a veteran CIA analyst in the Balkan bureau, has quit the company after being reassigned for what he deems political reasons. That’s just the beginning of his troubles. His piranha-like wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton reinventing herself as the shrew du jour), scoffs at his plans to “consult” and write a book. She’s making her own plans: to divorce him, secure their assets, and hook up with twitchy, womanizing treasury cop Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). What no one’s counting on is that Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, mugging for his fans), two dimwitted trainers at Hardbodies Fitness Center, will get hold of a disc containing a draft of Osbourne’s tell-all memoirs.

Here’s another way to spoil a perfectly satisfying evening’s entertainment and get you hot under the collar about Burn. The first shot of Linda Litkze (played, mind you, by Joel Coen’s wife) is an extreme close-up of her cellulite-riddled ass. She’s consulting with a cosmetic surgeon about a variety of “surgeries” by which she can start her life anew. She needs money for this, so she manipulates the bone-headed Chad into helping with her harebrained scheme to make the increasingly beleaguered and inebriated Cox pony up for the return of his “shit.”

Add McDormand’s bovine femme fatale to Swinton’s cold-blooded bitch and the film looks a bit sexist. In fact, the Coens are not misogynistic but misanthropic, as always. They might even be parodying their own disdain for humanity with Osborne’s deranged outbursts against the “morons” who have been persecuting him. The biggest complaint you might have about the Coen Brothers in general and Burn in particular is — elitism.

So be it. The film is worth it if only for the tiny, throw-away gag involving a snapshot of a Greek Orthodox priest. Or the befuddled, exasperated summing up of the case by the brilliant J.K. Simmons as the unnamed CIA chief. “What did we learn from this?” he says (more or less). “The fuck I know. I guess we learned not to do this again. It’s hard to know what we did . . . ” That judgment is harsh. Given its wispy themes, the Coens could have titled their film “Forget After Seeing,” but I’m sure up for watching it again.

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