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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading is a smart comedy about stupid people. The Coen Brothers mirthfully subvert the Hitchcock-ian plot where normal everyday people become embroiled in international intrigue. Have you ever watched North by Northwest and wondered how far you would get if you were the mistaken identity in question? Burn After Reading takes it one step further, what if the people involved were complete morons? And what if there was no intrigue?

The hare-brained plot is set in motion when Chad and Linda, a personal trainer and assistant manager at a Washington D.C. gym (played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand), find a CD which seems to contain intellignce data. It turns out to be part of the memoirs written by low-level analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) whose wife is cheating on him wit a U.S. marshal played by George Clooney (his character is also sleeping with Linda.)

Pitt and McDormand are both fun to watch playing silly people with no idea what to do in such a sensitive situation. Indeed, their actions are informed by the very movies Joel and Ethan Coen are tweaking. After a poorly planned blackmail attempt the ditsy duo take the intel to the Russian embassy (apparently they stopped going to the movies in 1985.)

George Clooney is very good as a bumbling smooth-talker and exercise nut, who demonstrates a tendency toward violence and also cowardice and neediness and manages to make the whole thing believable. Tilda Swinton as his lover and Malkovich's wife capably plays a restrained, super-serious woman. And Malkovich himself is wonderful as an insupportable egomaniac who doesn't believe he has a problem with either alcohol or anger.

The best scenes in the movie take place in the offices of the CIA. J.K. Simmons plays the head of the agency, and his frustration with the wacky scenario unfolding between these unremarkable people is very humorous. The detachment with which he watches their lives collapse for a bunch of unimportant information is darkly funny.

Burn After Reading works well in its subversive mission, but starts slowly and lags at times. Overall, though, a very enjoyable effort, worthy of a 7.2 out of 10.

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