Saturday, September 27, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008)

“Report back to me when it makes sense” - J.K. Simmons as the “CIA Superior”

When an analyst for the CIA named Osbourne Cox, (John Malkovich) is fired, it sets into motion a series of events that results in the deaths and general unhappiness of several people (including audience members). Cox, frustrated and in search of a new career, begins writing his memoirs about his life in the CIA, much to the disinterest of his cold wife, Katie, played by Tilda Swinton. When a disk containing a rough draft of his work falls into the hands of two dimwitted gym employees, Chad & Linda (Brad Pitt & Frances McDormand), they (believing that they've stumbled onto some highly sensitive material) concoct a blackmailing scheme against Cox. Linda is hoping to get enough money out of the scam to have some cosmetic surgery done, while Chad seems to be in it just for the fun of doing spy stuff.

None of this is fun and games for Cox though, who angrily takes offense to Chad's position that he's not blackmailing anyone, but rather, just being a 'good samaritan.” Once things go awry with Osbourne, Chad and Linda take to disk to the Russian embassy in hopes that they will want it, meanwhile the CIA looks on very confused by what's transpiring. There are a lot of twists and turn in plot, which also involves George Clooney's Harry, a sex-addict who is unhappy with his marriage and finds himself dating both Katie and Linda, completely clueless of the relation between the two of them. There is also a plot line involving the manager of the gym, played by Richard Jenkins, who harbors feeling for Linda.

As Coen Brother's films go, “Burn After Reading” is among the weakest, which isn't to say that it's bad, but rather, really mediocre. It is also a curious follow-up to their most financially successful film to date, “No Country for Old Men.” Essentially a Dark-Comedy/Satire of the Spy genre, “Burn After Reading” has characters that are both emotionally grounded-in-reality, similar to those in “Fargo,” and who also possess the Coen's trademark bizarre-awkwardness. The film is advertised and billed as a Comedy, but from where I was sitting, it played more like a Tragedy, with hardly a laugh in sight. The characters are not bright, which in and of itself is not funny, but can be if done right. Here though, their ignorance is more depressing than anything else. Perhaps that is because the film goes to some lengths to make the audience understand why they act the way they do. The result is that you understand them, but you don't really like them, nor do you want to root for them.

All that being said, a weak Coen Brother's film is not a complete waste of time. J.K. Simmons has two scenes in the movie, but manages to be absolutely perfect in them. Clooney is good playing a character who seems like he wandered in from a different film all together and just decided to hang around. I don't care what anybody says about him, Brad Pitt is only funny in the movie because of Brad Pitt. He has nothing to work with dialog-wise, except perhaps the line “I thought you might be worried...about the security...of your shit.” I'm kind of on the fence about McDormand in this one, which says a lot because I usually love her. I can't decide if I think she phoned it in, or if it's a truly fearless performance. And finally, Malkovich pretty much owns this movie. I kind of wanted everyone else to go away and just let the movie be about his character.

Maybe it will get better with age, but based on this one viewing, I would have to say that it was a pretty big disappointment. You know it's bad when you spend most of the movie waiting for it to get awesome.

"Burn After Reading" was screened at the Tinseltown 20 on 9/23/08.

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