September 11, 2008

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Burn After Reading (R)
Adventure, danger and intrigue, stupid stupid intrigue, entangle the characters in Burn After Reading, a delightfully weird and funny spy story from the Coen brothers.

Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job in a profanity-laced huff after his boss at the CIA (David Rasche) attempts to demote him, possibly for a drinking problem. Osborne tells his wife Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) not to worry because he plans to “consult” (which appears to simply mean lay around the house in his pajamas, drinking) as he works on his memoir (ditto). Katie’s not having any of that, though. She’s a successful doctor who is already having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal who has a bright and optimistic outlook on life despite his many infidelities and his extreme paranoia.

When Harry’s not cheating on his children’s book author wife with Katie, he’s bedding the many women he meets at an online dating site, which is how he meets Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Linda is an employee at the gym Hardbodies and is desperate to undergo a personal transformation by which she means that she wants a series of cosmetic surgeries. She can’t afford all this renovation, however, which is why she’s so willing to go along with Chad (Brad Pitt), a particularly dimwitted fellow gym employee who has decided to blackmail the owner of a CD filled with U.S. government secrets that another employee gives to Chad after finding it on the gym floor.

Suppose a densely plotted, wheels-within-wheels Hitchcock suspense thriller were populated entirely with morons. That, essentially, is Burn After Reading. An ominous score, cloak-and-dagger happenings, the spy connection and the national-security setting all serve to highlight the exaggerated bumblings of this below-average crew among whom only Swinton’s wonderfully bitchy Katie seems smart enough to form coherent thoughts. The charm of this movie is that, as in most suspense movies, nothing is as it seems but when you learn what “It” is, it’s always so much stupider and more bizarre than you ever could have guessed.

It’s the performances that really carry this conceit and in less adept hands it easily could have turned into slapstick or pointlessly mean comedy. As it is, I’d argue that all the meanness has a point, which is to delight in these bad-behavior performances by all these having-giddy-fun actors. Among the top tier of actors, Pitt’s performance stands out as a particularly giddy romp in the dumb suit. Pitt’s blank stare alone is enough to elicit laughs in some scenes. Malkovich perfectly mixes pomposity and rage for his role, giving us an antihero we enjoy seeing tormented. McDormand is ditzy fun but even more fun is Richard Jenkins who plays her boss at the gym. He carries a torch for her that threatens to set the entire greater Washington, D.C., area ablaze but naturally Linda never picks up on his unsubtle hints. J.K. Simmons has only a bit part as a CIA bigwig watching the baffling affair but still manages to score some of the movie’s most memorable lines.

Burn After Reading isn’t the dark masterpiece of Fargo, the stylized comedy of O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the cult classic of The Big Lebowski. It’s slow to start and rather abrupt on the finish. But it’s fun and surprising, full of the kind of unexpected jabs to the funny bone that keep you the kind of unbalanced you hope for when watching a Coen creation. B

Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading is an hour and 35 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, Sept. 12. It is distributed by Focus Features.