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BURN AFTER READING (2008) * movie review by COOP

Posted on September 16th, 2008
Posted on September 16th, 2008


Last year, Joel and Ethan Coen knocked one out of the park with “No Country For Old Men,” racking up an Oscar trifecta with Best Motion Picture, Best Directing and Best Adapted Screenplay. Proving their maturity as two of the best filmmakers in the world, expectations were high for their next project. The follow up: “Burn After Reading.” The result: A really stupid comedy and possibly the biggest disappointment of the year.

This screwball farce has no main character, but begins with Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) flying into a rage after the CIA cans him from his analyst position. His ice queen wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) accidentally copies supposedly sensitive intelligence data while digging up dirt for a divorce and indirectly misplaces the disk. Two bungling gym trainers, Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) find the disk with hopes of turning it in for a reward, but quickly graduate to extortion and treason when provoked. Caught in the middle of the mess is Treasury Agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who balances a coincidental affair with both Katie and Linda while pursuing a shadowy figure in a dark sedan. All these characters eventually cross paths with predictably disastrous results.

In comparison, this effort has nothing on the Coens’ previous comedies, “Raising Arizona,” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” It’s not even as good as their lesser efforts, “The Ladykillers” and “Intolerable Cruelty.” While “Burn” has many admirable qualities, such as fine performances and witty dialogue, the sum of the parts add up to absolutely nothing. I’ll admit it made me laugh, but it was uncomfortable laughter. When one of the characters met with a sudden and shocking death, it was so unexpected, I couldn’t help but lapse into gasping chuckles. I’m not sure it was meant to be a comedic moment but it made me squirm so much, I couldn’t help it.

The filmmakers apparently felt the need to return to their comedic roots, yet they chose a script with no redeeming value and characters so miserably unlikeable, you won’t care who lives, dies or gets put into a coma. The Coens follow a tired formula for creating each character, giving each at least two wacky quirks: Linda serial dates men off the internet and risks ruining her credit to undergo needless plastic surgery. Chad is a hyper airhead who constantly exercises and compulsively dances to tunes on his iPod. Harry philanders, obsesses over wooden flooring and develops an extreme streak of paranoia… and so on. With all the focus on quirks, none of the characters develop any redeeming qualities so their actions mean absolutely zip.

The music resulted in another poor choice for the Coens, adopting a hard-hitting orchestral score reserved for serious spy and political thrillers. I suppose this was an attempt at irony but it fell awkwardly flat. The same awkwardness can apply to Pitt and Clooney who intentionally play against type to make fun of their past serious roles in spy films. I can’t help but imagine these two guys patting each other on the back whenever they show up in the same film. Please, guys… No more “Burn After Readings” or “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. It’s like watching you throw a party for yourselves while the audience sits in the kitchen preparing your caviar and champagne.

Dark comedy is one of the most difficult genres to pull off because the tone must be pitch-perfect. Balancing the violence and mean-spirited actions of the characters with scenes designed to make people laugh requires the touch of a master. The Coens nearly wrote the book on dark comedy as it saturates every work they’ve created, but with “Burn” they got cocky. They figured they could afford a little self-indulgence by forcing their actor buddies into undisciplined wackiness and watch the whole thing turn into gold. Instead, they caused a massive cinematic wreck. Don’t let the pretentious critics fool you. General audiences are going to hate this film. For anyone who disliked the abrupt ending of “No Country,” avoid this one. Watching “Burn After Reading” is like watching a long string of abrupt endings with zero payoff.

Don’t bother looking for a point to this story. There isn’t one and the Coens know it. Their comedy “The Big Lebowski,” while less mean spirited and more entertaining, is another offender of pointless storytelling. After “Lebowski” released, I hoped the Coens had gotten this annoying type of story out of their system. Then came “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and I knew these guys had developed a bad habit. Their next film, “A Serious Man” doesn’t appear to depart from this trend. I sincerely hope these talented siblings attempt bolder, dramatic efforts like “No Country” and give their comedy muscles a rest. As Popeye says, “That’s all I can stands and I can’t stands no more!”

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Watch the infamous “diaper robbery” scene from “Raising Arizona” to watch the Cohen brothers doing dark comedy the right way (also to give Nic Cage some respect despite his “Bangkok Dangerous” screw-up)…

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