Movie review: 'Burn After Reading' a bull's-eye

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2008 - 7:24 PM

The Coen Brothers' followup to the bleak and bloody "No Country for Old Men," hits the comedy sweet spot.

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George Clooney and Frances McDormand in "Burn After Reading."

The advisory "Burn After Reading" implies a top-secret document vital to the fate of the nation. Then again, it could signify a worthless manuscript whose highest purpose would be to start a barbecue.

So it's an apt title for the Coen brothers' latest film, a stylish spoof of the spy intrigue genre. Shot, scored and edited like a paranoid conspiracy thriller, but acted with comic exuberance by a brilliant ensemble cast, it presents itself seriously while making hardly any sense at all.

Let's not mince words. The major players -- Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and George Clooney -- are idiots. So are Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich, even though she speaks in a snippy English accent and he pretentiously talks of writing his "mem-waahs."

The movie is joyfully alive to idiocy, from buffoons walking the solemn marble corridors of power to dopes on the treadmill at the franchise gym down the street. Their lives interlock in the manner of a hypnotically watchable mystery, but instead of an elaborately plotted scheme we get a pinball machine farce.

After a portentous setup, a God's-eye view of Earth zooming down to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. (thank you, urgent subtitles!), things begin going haywire. Veteran intelligence analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich), summoned to a meeting with the top brass, is dumbfounded to learn he's being demoted.

In a profane, spittle-flecked tantrum, he resigns, devoting his days to dictating a dreary account of his spy career and drinking in his bathrobe.

It's the last straw for his icy wife (Swinton), who is about to divorce him for her feckless lover. That would be Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a hot-dog Treasury agent who still carries a gun from his old days in "P.P." -- personal protection.

Nearby, Linda Lipsky (McDormand), a fading staffer at the Hardbodies workout studio, fixates on the plastic surgeries that she believes will make her a hot commodity on the Internet dating circuit. Her buddy Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), a trainer at the gym, urges her to go for it. He's the type who would say "Go for it" if you reached for the salt.

When a computer disk with Cox's musings turns up at the gym, Chad figures it's worth a reward that could give Linda a down payment on her augmentations. Cox, irate, refuses to play along, setting off a string of consequences that begin with a bloody nose for Chad and end with more comic bloodshed than you would imagine.

The film revolves around a few basic emotions -- greed, anger, lust, pride -- and a cast of characters who consistently misinterpret each other's motives. Linda is obsessed with "reinventing" herself superficially, blind to the fact that the Hardbodies manager (Richard Jenkins) pines for her like a lovelorn basset hound. Harry believes he's being tailed everywhere he goes, but never considers the simplest explanation. Cox seethes with fury at the "league of morons" running the world while acting with less impulse control than your average 4-year-old. And Cox's wife thinks horndog Harry is promising relationship material (a sly parody of Clooney's offscreen image).

Then there's Chad, a sweet-spirited dimwit so far out of his depth you'd need sonar to find him. Chad is a fist-pumping, jive-dancing iPod accessory, a perpetual motion machine in spandex bike shorts. He is a creature of simple, childlike enthusiasms. He helps Linda shake down Cox because she's his friend and it's fun at first. When he gets Cox on the phone, he bursts into the gaping grin of a grade-schooler pulling his first prank call. And when Linda insists he wear a suit to their ransom meeting, he groans like a kid being forced into scratchy woolen church pants.

Pitt makes Chad a dunce among dolts. There's a lunkheaded music to the dialogue the Coens gave him, of course. "I am a mere Good Samaritan," he insists as he extorts the fuming Malkovich. It's the physical business of his performance, though, that makes it an utter delight. Look at the way he twists his mouth to suckle at his ever-present water bottle, like an overgrown baby. Observe his eyes, one moment cartoon slits of sneaky calculation and the next popped wide in surprise. It's a feast of a performance, perfectly calculated to put us on his side before the Coens, those clever sadists, whip the rug out from under us.

So what does it all mean? Not much. Harry spends much of the movie working on a mysterious invention in his basement, and when its function is revealed, it could stand as a symbol for the elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption that is the film itself. Like its close cousin "The Big Lebowski," "Burn" is a ramble, not a linear narrative. David Rasche and J.K. Simmons are priceless as two executive spies who serve as the tale's befuddled Greek chorus, summarizing the absurd plot twists and wishing the whole mess would just blow away. Me, I can already hear it calling me back for a second viewing.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

  • BURN AFTER READING

    ★★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

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