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Film Review: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading (2008; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

Fourteen years after The Big Lebowski and twelve years after O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens have yet to make another great comedy. Intolerable Cruelty had intermittent moments of loopy comedic inspiration, but the less said about The Ladykillers and Tom Hanks’  Southern accent, the better. It’s fair to say that Burn After Reading is as close to their past comedic glory as the brothers have gotten recently (when they’ve concentrated, compellingly, on more dramatic material), though it’s also entirely fair to say that long stretches of it are completely devoid of laughs.

What saves the movie from forgettability, really, is the rogue’s gallery of classic Coen character creations that it boasts. One can never presume to question the Coens’ powers as crafters of fascinatingly weird and deranged people, and the central cast here provides some classic oddballs to the Coens Canon of Creeps. George Clooney redeems his staid Grant impersonation in Intolerable Cruelty with Harry, a creature of nervous charm and slippery dissembling. Richard Jenkins plays one sad, strange bastard. John Malkovich embodies a bitter ex-CIA analyst with misguided intellectual pretensions and a snobbish disdain for the Great Unwashed. Tilda Swinton is his frigid, baffled wife. And Frances McDormand, always on point in the films of her husband (Joel) and brother-in-law (Ethan), whips up yet another totally singular middle-aged woman, this one bursting with positive thinking and driven by a fundamental need for youth-recapturing cosmetic surgery.

But Brad Pitt, amazingly, steals the half of the movie that he’s allowed access to. His lunkheaded workout-nut gym-rat, Chad has got some funny lines, sure (“I thought you might be worried about the security… of your shit”), but his square movements, constant gum-chewing, perpetual dumbfounded expression, and gnomic observations (“Appearances can be… deceptive”) are consistently hilarious. But his comic tour-de-force unbalances the bumbling intelligence-agency satire of the switchback-laden plot; as fantastic as Pitt is, he and Chad seem to have bopped accidentally into the wrong film, earbuds in, sucking a smoothie through a straw, and ultimately hiding in the wrong closet. This is hardly a poor film, and certainly interesting to consider in light of the current Petraeus scandal and its revelation of the comedy of errors that is the real-life CIA. But what’s telling about the quality of the comedic writing at work here is that what’s funniest about Burn After Reading is not what’s on the script page but what the talented actors conjure up to bring it to life. And top-notch Coens comedies always read funny first.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. October 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm

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