BURN AFTER READING
***1/2 (out of 5)
September 12, 2008
George Clooney as HARRY PFARRER
Frances McDormand as LINDA LITZKE
Brad Pitt as CHAD FELDHEIMER
John Malcovich as OSBORNE COX
Tilda Swinton as KATIE COX
Studio: Focus Features
Directed by: The Coen Brothers
BY KEVIN CARR
It’s always hard to live up to your past successes. No matter how good you do in the past, there’s always a next time, and the next time for the Coen Brothers is “Burn After Reading.”
This is their follow-up to the near-perfect Oscar-winner “No Country for Old Men,” and “Burn After Reading” doesn’t quite live up to it.
The movie tells the story of a group of dim-witted gym employees who find a CD in the locker room. They assume these are classified CIA files, even though they are the poorly-written memoirs of a recently fired CIA middleman named Archibald Cox (John Malcovich). Two of the employees named Linda and Chad (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) hatch a plan to blackmail Cox.
Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Cox doesn’t cooperate, so Linda and Brad try to find another person to sell the files to. Meanwhile, Treasury agent and sex addict Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is sleeping with Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) and strikes up another relationship with Linda. Betrayal, paranoia and unfortunate circumstance causes these relationships to implode.
In some ways, “Burn After Reading” reminds me of “The Big Lebowski.” This was the film that followed up the Coen Brothers’ other masterpiece, “Fargo.” When I watched “The Big Lebowski” in the shadow of “Fargo,” it didn’t seem that great. But taken on its own, it’s an excellent film. The only reason I think that I felt a little lukewarm to “Burn After Reading” was that it was the unfortunate follow-up to “No Country for Old Men.”
The trailers can be a bit deceiving in that they hint at a movie that is more overtly funny than what you’ll actually see. Instead of focusing primarily on the gym employees (who provide the source of humor), we open with Archibald Cox’s deteriorating life. This side of the story is more dark and dreary than the goofy folks at the Hardbodies gym. This isn’t a bad thing, just slightly different than I thought it would be.
Once Linda and Chad enter the film, things lighten up, but under the sardonic hand of the Coen Brothers. At first, the characters seem disjointed, but their paths all cross eventually. After seeing the film and watching the trailers again, this is one of the few films that I want to revisit. I think now that I know what I’m getting into, I’ll like it better.
What makes the film a real treat is the acting. The cast is stellar with McDormand and Clooney both playing perfect buffoons. Sure, Malcovich plays… well, he plays John Malcovich as he does in any movie he’s in, but he works for the part. The scene stealer is Brad Pitt as the hyperactive idiot Chad. My only regret on the cast is that the film didn’t feature Chad more.
I would imagine that any Coen Brothers fan is going to walk away from this movie with plenty to like. If you’re not into off-kilter dark comedies, you might find this film to be a little sour. However, it was ultimately an entertaining ride.
It’s not the best film in the Coen Brothers’ library, but like almost any one of their films, it’s better than most movies out there.