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Burn After Reading

The Coen Brothers Follow Up No Country With Pointless, Joyless Spy Story

About.com Rating 1 Star Rating

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Burn After Reading

George Clooney and Frances McDormand in "Burn After Reading"

After grabbing their Oscars for No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers are back with Burn After Reading, a new film billed as "spy comedy." Indeed, they've left Marfa, Texas in the dust and ditched the literary gravitas for a screwball plot involving C.I.A. operatives set in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. So far, so good -- I'm just not sure what's supposed to be funny about it.
In the cartoonish mode that successfully turned The Big Lebowski into a classic and Ladykillers into a disaster, Burn After Reading presents us with a set of broadly drawn characters at cross purposes. As usual for the Coens, the cast is a first-rate mix of old favorites -- George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins -- and eager first-time collaborators like Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Brad Pitt.

All the more stunning, then, that only two of the roles given to this sterling ensemble are even remotely likable (and they're the ones who suffer the most dire consequences). Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) is a paranoid womanizer who cuts off his children's book author wife (Elizabeth Marvel) at stuffy Georgetown parties. Newly laid-off "bozo" with a drinking problem Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is prone to violent fits, and his adulterous "cold bitch" wife Katie (Swinton) is planning on divorcing him.

As obnoxious fitness studio employee Linda Litzke, Frances McDormand bickers with insurance agents over her cosmetic surgery, Jenkins is her hang-dog boss, and Brad Pitt caricatures an idiotic personal trainer who grooves to his iPod while permanently sucking on a sports drink. They're all dumb, greedy, selfish, grating and cruel, and why anybody would want to spend time with them is a mystery to me. Chalk it up to the Coens' much-cited misanthropy or misplaced satirical intent, but there's nothing enjoyable or insightful about hanging out with this duplicitous crowd.

A convoluted plot about misplaced documents is supposed to provide hilarity, but generic jokes about internet dating, automated phone systems, and daytime television aren't my idea of fun. With nobody to care for and nothing at stake, Burn After Reading goes through its paces in fits and starts, lurching through scenes in which nasty, stupid people get increasingly nasty and stupid, with predictably violent results.

Once again, the Coens can't resist ending the film with a law enforcement figure (JK Simmons taking the mantle from Tommy Lee Jones) who spells out the moral for us, such as it is: "What did we learn? Not to do this again." Like No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading concludes with a defeated shrug that betrays the Coens' contempt for their characters and their audience. The film's last words adequately express his and my exasperation with this pointless, joyless tale: "Jesus Christ!"

Burn After Reading (2008)

Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt
Directed by: The Coen Brothers
Release Date: September 12, 2008 (wide)
Distributor: Focus Films
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

More Films By The Coen Brothers

  • No Country for Old Men
  • Paris, je t'aime
  • The Man Who Wasn't There
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