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Arts & Culture

Burn After Reading

Imagine The Bourne Ultimatum but remove all the skilled competent people and replace them with morons and pencil pushing government dweebs and you'll start to get an idea of what Burn After Reading is like. The film opens with a spy satellite's view of the world and then it zooms in on CIA headquarters to find agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) being unceremoniously fired. Outraged Cox first asks whose ass did he forget to kiss and then he holds out his arms and proclaims, "this is a crucifixtion." Next we meet Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) a Hard Bodies gym instructor dead set on getting a total body makeover. The only problem is her health care provider isn't as convinced as she is. Now how do these two very different people cross paths? Well Cox decides to write his CIA memoirs, which end up on a disc that his wife downloads as she's trying to collect information for her divorce. The disc ends up in the locker room at the Hard Bodies gym where loopy employee Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) finds it and decides to ask for a "good Samaritan reward." Linda serves as his advisor and the whole thing spirals quickly out of control as everyone gets in way over their head. At the center of it all is Cox who fairly explodes at the ineptitude surrounding him. Toward the end he lashes out and says, "You represent the idiocy of today...a league of morons."

John Malkovich rages against a "league of morons" in Burn After Reading (Focus Features)

Burn After Reading doesn't approach the perfection of No Country for Old Men so put aside those expectations right now. But it is a dark, violent comedy that delivers moments of perfection. The trailer for the film may actually be a little misleading, as it highlights the more comic elements and gives no hint of the abrupt violence contained in the film. The Coens actually treat the whole affair rather seriously with somber music punctuating the twists and turns of the plot. The humor arises from the absurdity of the situations and from how ill-suited the characters are to the tasks they are given.


In an odd way, Burn After Reading is the perfect film for this election year. The Coens rarely address issues directly but in Burn After Reading they touch on healthcare (as Linda battles her provider for cosmetic surgery); national security; governmental incompetence; the Russians; and a populace that doesn't much care about the world beyond themselves. Of course none of this is directly addressed as political issues or raised in any serious manner, but it's all there if you choose to look. After bodies pile up and security is breached, one of the top guys at the CIA fleetingly ponders, "What did we learn?" But he doesn't wait for an answer or even pause to pretend to consider one. So long as the press didn't get wind of anything and the government is still standing - just move on and forget about. The film doesn't leave you feeling very good about the intelligence community or about our government's dedication to serving its people. Nor can we place much hope in our citizens. Linda represents the common folk and all she wants is her cosmetic surgery so she can start a new life. So what if a few people have to die and she'll have to turn a blind eye to some very nasty things that have gone down, so long as she gets what she wants, she's happy. If that's the typical person out there, then our country could be in a lot more trouble than we thought.

Richard Jenkins and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading (Focus Features)

But all this is played out for dark laughs. McDormand is hilarious as the determined Linda who boldly ventures into espionage and gets irate when the Russians aren't polite enough. McDormand gives Linda an unexpected steely reserve that contrasts nicely with Brad Pitt's Chad, who seems a total innocent or complete idiot, it depends on how you want to read his character. Pitt's performance harkens back to the indie roles he took on in films such as Johnny Suede, Twelve Monkeys , and True Romance. It's nice to see him break out from the pretty boy starring roles and cut loose. Malkovich, with his slow burning, elitist rage, steals the show. His Osborne Cox is a little like Eddie Albert in Green Acres in that he seems like the only one with a clue about what the real world is like but nothing around him supports his rational perspective. Tilda Swinton as Cox's wife just seems to glide above the chaos while George Clooney hams it up as a treasury department agent who brags about never discharging his weapon. It's nice how the Coens take big Hollywood celebrities like Clooney and Pitt and make them look ridiculous. They seem to take delight in treating these Hollywood stars -- or at least the characters they play -- with a certain lack of respect. And the fate that awaits one of them is sure to draw gasps from the audience because a star would never receive such callous treatment in a proper Hollywood film.

The pacing isn't as crisp here as it could be and the comic payoffs are all over the map - some broad, a few subtle, some falling flat. The most cleverness comes from the dialogue and the clean, clipped way most of these actors deliver their lines. J.K. Simmons, as a CIA top dog, snaps out lines like "Report back when it makes more sense," with perfect efficiency and annoyed disinterest.


Burn After Reading (R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence) does not give us the Coens in peak form but there's enough here to tide you over till the Coen's crank out their next classic. This one while enjoyable feels a bit like a filler between bigger projects.

Companion viewing: O Brother Where Art Thou, Raising Arizona, Green Acres