Burn After Reading (2008)

Badly flawed

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on September 18, 2008 in Fayetteville Free Weekly.

Please send Get Well cards to the Coen Brothers. After last year's "No Country for Old Men," for which they won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, Joel and Ethan Coen have had a relapse.

Their new offering "Burn After Reading" is reminiscent of "The Ladykillers" the Coen Brothers' bomb with Tom Hanks in 2004. "Burn After Reading" is "The Ladykillers, Part 2." It has star power, but it fizzles.

It's hard to understand how the collaborative duo that made such a dynamic, impressive film as "No Country for Old Men" could squander their next opportunity so abjectly. Two or three chuckles do not make a comedy. "Burn After Reading" is a shallow diversion.

"Burn After Reading" is a fitful, lurching would-be comedy about espionage. Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) gets demoted from his position at the CIA and decides to write his memoirs. Linda Litske (Frances McDormand) desires four different cosmetic surgeries. Is McDormand's husband Joel Coen trying to tell her something? But Linda's HMO won't pay for the treatments. So when she and Chad (Brad Pitt), a co-worker at a fitness center, get hold of a CD with Cox's info on it, they decide to sell it back to him, to the Russians, or maybe to the dopey Alaskans. This is no Ninotchka. It's more Nincompoops.

Chaos ensues. Not funny chaos, just chaos. At times the Coens seem to suffer from arrested development. They love to be quirky, but many of their quirks seem to be dated. They have characters continually lob f-bombs. But after a while George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and John Malkovich exhaust profanity, and it becomes a weak gimmick.

I realize there is something enticing about casting actors in roles that are not their usual images, but talented actors should be given good material, no matter what their roles. The Coen Brothers sell them short.

"Burn After Reading" has a great cast, but they are blunted by mediocre material.

The only part that has any range is Osbourne Cox, and Malkovich nails it as usual. How far Frances McDormand has fallen. She won an Oscar in her husband's "Fargo," but as Linda she is given little with which to work; she was given much more by other writers and another director in this year's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day."

Brad Pitt has zestful fun as Chad, the not-very-bright personal trainer who jives to music on his head phones. But it's a role that could be played by Rob Schneider or Pauly Shore.

As always George Clooney is good-natured in the skimpy role as Harry, a man who loves sex. Clooney's goodnaturedness is wearing thin. These days he often coasts. He has a lot of mediocre movies in his wake. The Clooney role could be cut from the film without any loss at all.

In "Burn After Reading" the Coens have become toneless. Joel co-directs and co-writes with brother Ethan. They edit the movie under the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes. Their best movies, "No Country for Old Men" (2007), "Fargo" (1996), "Raising Arizona" (1987), and "Barton Fink" (1991) all have a strong sense of place and people. The very popular slacker-comedy "The Big Leibowski" (1997) has a strong performance that holds it together.

But at their worst the Coens are skitterish and even bland. Bland quirkiness, such as in "Burn After Reading," is not worth much.

Seeing "Burn After Reading" I felt like I was invited to a party on screen where all the other guests already had a buzz on. It made them think they were much funnier than they were. They thought they were a f**king riot. Maybe they should hand out bongs with your tickets.


You might be interested in reading my most recent reviews, all of my reviews from this year, or all of my reviews from last year.

For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).


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