Saturday, February 07, 2009
By John Latchem | Posted: 05 Jan 2009
Box Office $60.4 million
$29.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence.
Stars George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins.
Joel and Ethan Coen are such masters at weaving rich tapestries of character and dialogue that any semblance of a story is almost lost in the folds. But a little digging often yields fruitful results.
In Burn After Reading, the Coens have crafted a movie about the intelligence community, populated by characters who don’t seem to have any. The story spins around itself so improbably, yet so convincingly, that we are left not knowing quite what to think, thankful that such a tale did not involve us personally. The Coens’ creation stands as a polemic against a world driven mad by morons.
The cacophony of idiocy begins with Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who quits his job after being reassigned for having a drinking problem. Cox plans to spend his newfound free time writing a memoir, much to the chagrin of his cold-hearted wife (Tilda Swinton), who is considering leaving Osbourne for Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).
And so the plot begins to entangle an ever-increasing circle of colorful characters. We meet Linda (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman who sees plastic surgery as the only answer to her sagging body. She works at a fitness center, but her health plan won’t cover the costs. Her coworker Chad (Brad Pitt) stumbles upon a disc filled with what appears to be prized CIA secrets. In actuality the disc contains Osbourne’s memoirs, and how it ended up at the gym is just one spoke in this comedy of errors.
Linda hits upon the idea of blackmailing Osbourne to finance her surgeries. When Osbourne balks, she goes to the Russians. Her schemes take place between dates she secures on the Internet, including one with Harry, who has his own marital issues to sort out.
Trying to keep track of all this are a pair of confused CIA officials (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons), who don’t quite know how utterly unserious the situation really is. They just want it to go away.
The Coens have become adept at throwing out the old movie rule to “show, not tell.” Key scenes often take place off camera, only to be described by incredulous observers. But their reactions prove more entertaining than serving as witness to these events ourselves. Only the Coens could imbue such rich humor into circumstances that otherwise would be considered tragic.
The only extras on the home video versions are a few short featurettes, which run just long enough for the Coens to discuss their reasons for making the film, and for George Clooney to reminisce about playing a dolt in three Coen films (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty prior to this). A more in-depth reading of the film is left to the viewer.