Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Foggy Bottom Boys

Faulty intelligence plagues the Coens’ stale new comedy Burn After Reading.


A couple of movies ago, I asked if we should be worried about the Coen brothers. Now I’ve got a different question: Are the Coen brothers turning into Woody Allen? Whether they’re making nihilistic thrillers or antic comedies, their films have settled into the same identifiable themes and verbal tics, and even when their work turns out well (like that one that won all those Oscars last year), it no longer has the shock of revelation that their earlier work had. Burn After Reading is the Coens’ first wholly original DELETE since their 2001 film The Man Who Wasn’t There, and though it isn’t short on energy, it’s markedly unappealing for a movie with such an appealing cast.
The plot begins with CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) being fired from his job for drinking too much and being ditched by his cheating wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who’s possibly the world’s nastiest pediatrician. During their divorce proceedings, a paralegal working on the case loses a disc full of Cox’s financial information at a Washington D.C. gym. Disastrously, it falls into the hands of two gym employees, plastic surgery-obsessed Linda (Frances McDormand) and total moron Chad (Brad Pitt), who both think the disc contains valuable intelligence and mastermind an incredibly stupid plan to blackmail Cox.
The movie is mostly shot in harsh daylight, and the DELETE is clearly meant to play as wacky dark farce. The Coens’ longtime composer, Carter Burwell, evidently didn’t get the memo, however. He scores the film as if it were a Ridley Scott thriller with matters of national security at stake.
That’s not what kills the laughs here, though. This movie is populated largely by characters who are bitter and sad, including the gym manager (Richard Jenkins) who’s carrying a torch for Linda and a Treasury Department employee named Harry (George Clooney) who’s having affairs with both Linda and Katie. The filmmakers spend a lot of time skewering everybody’s pretensions and phoniness — in Harry’s case, rather expertly — but they show no warmth toward these characters like they did in their most beloved films, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? What fun is it laughing at miserable people and the unraveling of their plans, even if those plans are ridiculous?
By contrast, Chad is the only major character who doesn’t actively hate himself and his job, so you feel comfortable laughing at him. Like all the other actors here, Pitt overdoes things, doing silly dances and flailing his arms while running on a treadmill. Still, you’re grateful for the relish he brings to his role, as when Chad first contacts Cox and tries to be suave but comes off like a 12-year-old making a crank call: “I thought you might be concerned about the security of your shit.”
The hasty end of Burn After Reading is reminiscent of all those other times when it felt like the Coens got stuck for a way out of their movie. Then again, everything about this film, especially its themes of betrayal and the universe mocking people’s plans, has popped up in other Coen films to better effect. Right now, it feels like the Coens are stuck on a treadmill.

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