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Burn After Reading

The Coens lighten up

Sep. 18, 2008
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   After winning Oscars with the unrelentingly grim No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers lighten up a little for Burn After Reading. Their new film traverses territory more familiar to the filmmakers. Here, death doesn't descend in the form of an enigmatic hit man who tosses coins for the lives he encounters. Death just happens. Mordantly humorous but seldom laugh-out-loud funny, Burn After Reading is like most of the Coens' previous movies, sitting somewhere between genre spoof and social satire.

  The genre is the spy thriller, and if Ethan and Joel Coen applied themselves, they could be among the top exponents of intelligence intrigue working in Hollywood. None of this turbo-charged, mile-a-minute Jason Bourne jump-cutting for them; the Coens are more in the classic mode, where every smile conceals a double agent, everyone is being trailed and tension builds from uncertainty. Only, like Mel Brooks' cool children, the brothers regard the spy genre as funny at heart, worthy of ribbing even as serious skullduggery is undertaken and the body count slowly mounts.

  Burn After Reading turns around a cashiered Ivy League CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), bitter over an agency that has descended into infighting among bureaucrats competing with one another for dimness and amorality. His marriage to Katie (Tilda Swinton), a most unpleasant English pediatrician, is disintegrating. With nothing left to do, he drinks and writes his memoirs. "We were young and committed and there was nothing we could not do," he drones into his recorder.

  The plot heats up after a disc containing his opus-in-progress falls into the hands of a pair of goofballs who work at Hardbodies gym, Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand). Linda is obsessed with reconstructive surgery, including the removal of a "vaccination scar," and seeks to "reinvent" herself. Her head is stuffed with the used Kleenex of pop psychology. Chad's is entirely empty. Possessing between them as much grasp of geopolitics as Sarah Palin, they first try blackmailing Osbourne. Then they offer his disc to the Russian Embassy. All they succeed in doing is attracting the wrong sort of attention.

  Everything comes back to the Cox family. Their Secret Service agent friend, Harry (George Clooney), is a charming man's man with a winning smile and an obsession with keeping fit. Osbourne doesn't know that Harry's having an affair with the aggressively blunt-edged Katie, who doesn't know that the insatiable Harry is also pursuing Linda through online dating. Did I mention that Harry is married?

  Osbourne gets many of the funnier lines. Accused by a fellow CIA agent of having a drinking problem, he shoots back in his feline way, "You're a Mormon. Next to you, we all have a drinking problem." Malkovich's performance is marvelously fey and agitated. Erudite and angry, Osbourne is sick of suffering fools and deeply upset at what he deems the idiocy of contemporary society, "the league of morons" confronting him at every turn.

  This is just a guess: Osbourne is a mouthpiece for the Coens' own views, but rather than go pompous and upset themselves over the state of things like their protagonist, they'd rather poke subtle fun at double-chinned lawyers, wooden-headed jocks, clueless government officials, vacuous TV hosts, smarmy ladies' men and the silly ladies they win over. When analyzed, the society depicted in Burn After Reading is entirely rotten under its faade of Washington, D.C., professionalism. Beneath the dry humor, the vision is almost as grim as the one presented in No Country For Old Men.


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