Burn After Reading - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Burn After Reading

David Swindle
Grade: B+

The Coen brothers always seem to do this. They'll make some disturbing, critically-acclaimed film and then follow it up with an off-the-wall comedy.

After "Blood Simple" they released "Raising Arizona." Following "Barton Fink" they emerged with "The Hudsucker Proxy." After their Oscar win for "Fargo" the brothers gave us "The Big Lebowski." And now, a year after the success of "No Country For Old Men," they chuck at us the hilarious "Burn After Reading."

If "Lebowski" was the brothers' twist on film noir then "Reading" is their satiric take on the spy genre as only they can do it.

Set in Washington D.C. the first oddball the film pitches to us is CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich.) When Osborne's superiors inform him that he's being demoted he unleashes a string of profanities before deciding to resign. The alcoholic CIA man then decides to take this as an opportunity to write a tell-all memoir.

Meanwhile his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) sees it as the right time to begin looking into a divorce. She's been having an affair with the eccentric Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney,) a treasury agent. Pfarrer is the third moron Clooney has played in a Coen brothers film, following up on his characters in "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Intolerable Cruelty."

The plot kicks in when a CD containing some of Osborne's files are misplaced and discovered by employees of the health club Hard Bodies. Frances McDormand plays Linda Litzke, one of the assistant managers. Linda has grown depressed by her single lifestyle and imperfect body. Her life mainly consists of meeting losers through online dating websites and sleeping with them on the first date. She's planned a host of plastic surgeries and is blind to the affections of her sweet boss Ted (Richard Jenkins.)

So when the CD falls into her lap she sees an opportunity to get the money for her operations. She enlists the help of Chad (Brad Pitt,) one of the gym's personal trainers, to assist her in blackmailing Cox. In the middle of the scheme things grow more complicated when Linda meets Harry through her dating site.

It's then the classic Coen brothers formula. A couple of idiots try and commit a crime and everything goes crazy. The Coens' signature crime is usually kidnapping but in "Reading" they do blackmail, an act that was also central in the underappreciated "The Man Who Wasn't There."

There are plenty of strong laughs in the film, particularly from Malkovich and Pitt. Malkovich has always been one of our best badass actors. And while his character is one of the film's many idiots he's certainly the coolest. It's just a delight to watch him explode on his co-stars with bursts of f-words and later violence. Of the film's airheads Pitt is perhaps the most likeable. He has the kind of innocent, goofy stupidity that makes him a Beavis to the less sympathetic Linda's Butt-head.

The plot itself is also something of a delight. The Coens are masters at giving us plots that turn around on themselves, growing increasingly complex. Just try watching "Miller's Crossing" and you'll see this aspect of their work at its most intense.

Where the film fails to stand up to the same standard as much of the Coen's other comedic work is in its tone and characters. While the film falls into the genre of dark comedy it's really rather depressing on the whole. Virtually all of the characters are unhappy, selfish and empty. The ones in marriages are all having affairs and the lonely Linda is trapped in a sad life of promiscuity.

The film's characters also are not as strong as some of the Coens' classics. Of the five principle characters - Linda, Harry, Osborne, Katie, and Chad - the only likable ones are Osborne and Chad. Linda is perhaps the Coens' most pitiful creation in recent memory. She's almost the opposite of Marge Gunderson in every way. Harry is almost uncomfortably sleazy - a bizarre perversion of People Magazine's Sexiest Man. And Swinton takes the Ice Queen persona of her "Michael Clayton" to the extreme. The film does get an extra bump, though, with the addition of two scenes featuring J.K. Simmons as a fun CIA Director.

I'm tempted to give "Burn After Reading" the benefit of the doubt, though. The nature of Coen brothers films is that the first viewing is never the best. It's entirely normal to misunderstand or even hate a Coen brothers film the first time you see it. I'm quite sure that "Burn After Reading" will be no different.

Burn After Reading

David Swindle
Grade: B+

The Coen brothers always seem to do this. They'll make some disturbing, critically-acclaimed film and then follow it up with an off-the-wall comedy.

After "Blood Simple" they released "Raising Arizona." Following "Barton Fink" they emerged with "The Hudsucker Proxy." After their Oscar win for "Fargo" the brothers gave us "The Big Lebowski." And now, a year after the success of "No Country For Old Men," they chuck at us the hilarious "Burn After Reading."

If "Lebowski" was the brothers' twist on film noir then "Reading" is their satiric take on the spy genre as only they can do it.

Set in Washington D.C. the first oddball the film pitches to us is CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich.) When Osborne's superiors inform him that he's being demoted he unleashes a string of profanities before deciding to resign. The alcoholic CIA man then decides to take this as an opportunity to write a tell-all memoir.

Meanwhile his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) sees it as the right time to begin looking into a divorce. She's been having an affair with the eccentric Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney,) a treasury agent. Pfarrer is the third moron Clooney has played in a Coen brothers film, following up on his characters in "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Intolerable Cruelty."

The plot kicks in when a CD containing some of Osborne's files are misplaced and discovered by employees of the health club Hard Bodies. Frances McDormand plays Linda Litzke, one of the assistant managers. Linda has grown depressed by her single lifestyle and imperfect body. Her life mainly consists of meeting losers through online dating websites and sleeping with them on the first date. She's planned a host of plastic surgeries and is blind to the affections of her sweet boss Ted (Richard Jenkins.)

So when the CD falls into her lap she sees an opportunity to get the money for her operations. She enlists the help of Chad (Brad Pitt,) one of the gym's personal trainers, to assist her in blackmailing Cox. In the middle of the scheme things grow more complicated when Linda meets Harry through her dating site.

It's then the classic Coen brothers formula. A couple of idiots try and commit a crime and everything goes crazy. The Coens' signature crime is usually kidnapping but in "Reading" they do blackmail, an act that was also central in the underappreciated "The Man Who Wasn't There."

There are plenty of strong laughs in the film, particularly from Malkovich and Pitt. Malkovich has always been one of our best badass actors. And while his character is one of the film's many idiots he's certainly the coolest. It's just a delight to watch him explode on his co-stars with bursts of f-words and later violence. Of the film's airheads Pitt is perhaps the most likeable. He has the kind of innocent, goofy stupidity that makes him a Beavis to the less sympathetic Linda's Butt-head.

The plot itself is also something of a delight. The Coens are masters at giving us plots that turn around on themselves, growing increasingly complex. Just try watching "Miller's Crossing" and you'll see this aspect of their work at its most intense.

Where the film fails to stand up to the same standard as much of the Coen's other comedic work is in its tone and characters. While the film falls into the genre of dark comedy it's really rather depressing on the whole. Virtually all of the characters are unhappy, selfish and empty. The ones in marriages are all having affairs and the lonely Linda is trapped in a sad life of promiscuity.

The film's characters also are not as strong as some of the Coens' classics. Of the five principle characters - Linda, Harry, Osborne, Katie, and Chad - the only likable ones are Osborne and Chad. Linda is perhaps the Coens' most pitiful creation in recent memory. She's almost the opposite of Marge Gunderson in every way. Harry is almost uncomfortably sleazy - a bizarre perversion of People Magazine's Sexiest Man. And Swinton takes the Ice Queen persona of her "Michael Clayton" to the extreme. The film does get an extra bump, though, with the addition of two scenes featuring J.K. Simmons as a fun CIA Director.

I'm tempted to give "Burn After Reading" the benefit of the doubt, though. The nature of Coen brothers films is that the first viewing is never the best. It's entirely normal to misunderstand or even hate a Coen brothers film the first time you see it. I'm quite sure that "Burn After Reading" will be no different.

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