Burn After Reading


Burn After Reading

George Clooney and Frances McDormand find more to laugh about than I did.

(Focus) John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel, Olek Krupa. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The only thing in Washington easier to find than a crooked politician is someone else’s secrets. There are few towns in the world with more skeletons in more closets than D.C.

Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who is given his walking papers. Judging from his reaction, we can safely assume it was because of his people skills, although actually it was because of his alcohol abuse which led to the erosion of his people skills.

Cox, a self-righteous prig when he’s sober and a mean-tempered bastard when he’s not, decides to write his memoirs, which predictably are completely uninteresting to anybody but Osborne. His wife, Katie (Swinton) who’s the kind of dentist who scars kids for life over tooth hygiene, is thoroughly disgusted. She’s been having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a U.S. marshal who’s never fired his weapon and a wannabe lothario. His marriage to a children’s book author is a thing of boredom, and not only is he sleeping with Kate, he’s using a variety of dating services to fill up his remaining days while she’s on a book tour.

Kate, a true bitch (and maybe the reason Osborne drinks so much), is dead-set on divorcing her husband and taking as much as humanly possible for herself. At the behest of her divorce lawyer, she loads all the financial information for the household onto a CD-ROM which, as it happens, also has the first draft of Osborne’s memoirs on it. She gives this disk to her lawyer’s secretary, who promptly loses it at her gym.

This gym has quite possibly the world’s most knuckleheaded employees at any gym anywhere. Linda Litzke (McDormand) is an administrator who desperately wants surgery to enhance her face and figure; her romantic life has been an utter disaster and she’s tired of being alone. Chad (Pitt) is just a knucklehead who actually looks at the contents of the disk and deduces that it’s “spy shit.” He gives the disk to a friend who is knowledgeable about computers and is able to deduce that the source of the disk is one Osborne Cox.

Linda sees this as an opportunity to make enough money to be able to pay for the surgeries her insurance won’t cover (“Elective? My doctor signed off on it!”) and that her harried but smitten manager (Jenkins) doesn’t think she needs. They call Osborne, hoping that he will be so gratified to get the disk back that he’ll give them a generous reward.

He instead gives Chad a bloody nose and an earful of invective. Linda, by now sleeping with Harry, decides to take the obviously valuable disk to the Russians, where a disinterested functionary (Krupa) promises to look into it. In the meantime, Chad decides to do a little reconnoitering in Osborne’s house, not realizing that Osborne has been tossed out on his ear by Katie. Then, things get really complicated.

The Coen brothers are known for their slightly bent perspective and quirky sense of humor. Usually they keep the quirkiness reined in to a dull roar, but here it overwhelms the story to the point where it becomes annoying. The characters are all so unlikable that you actually don’t care what happens to any of them, not even Linda who is self-centered and a bit stupid.

That’s not to say that this fine cast doesn’t do a fine job. Clooney and McDormand are two of the Coens’ favorites, and they both turn in sterling performances. In fact, most of this cast does. Malkovich is a it over-the-top as only Malkovich can do it, but he plays one of the most disagreeable louts you’ll ever meet covered with a veneer of civility that is a patent falsehood. He may be well-educated and upper-crust but he’s still just another S.O.B. drowning in his own bottle.

There is a lot of swearing in this movie. A whole lot. I’m not usually prudish about such things, but those who are ought to give this a wide berth. Still, it is a Coen Brothers movie, which means it’s well written, well-acted and professionally filmed and always interesting. Still, even their least efforts are better than the best of most other directors. This ain’t no Fargo but it has enough moments to make it worth your while.

WHY RENT THIS: Malkovich is over-the-top in a good way. Uniformly good acting throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unusually for the Coens, the story isn’t very compelling and so daffy that it doesn’t resonate as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a ton of “F” bombs dropped here, particularly by Malkovich’s character. There is a graphic murder as well as a rather explicit sex machine that is…well, see for yourself. In any case, this is REALLY rated R.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Coen Brothers movie without cinematographer Roger Deakins since 1990; he was busy filming Revolutionary Road.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine Cleaning

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