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With: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons, Olek Krupa, Michael Countryman, Jeffrey DeMunn
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence
Language: English
Running Time: 96
Date: 27/08/2008

Burn After Reading (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Disc Jive

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It must have been one hell of an after-Oscar party. Half of the recent winners and nominees (and some that should have been nominated) must have gathered together and brainstormed what will surely be one of the most beautifully crafted and enjoyable movies of 2008. Forget any kind of Oscar stigma or nervous fretting about how to follow up a neo-classic like No Country for Old Men (2007). Instead the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have pumped out another work of genius as if it were another batch of tasty cookies. Burn After Reading is a kind of crime comedy similar to their previous duds Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004), but correcting all the things that went wrong on those films. The plot is grippingly complex and at the same time laughably ludicrous, and it has one of the best wrap-up lines ever filmed.

It begins when a CIA analyst, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), gets a demotion, storms out on his job and begins working on his memoirs. His chilly wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is secretly sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who is likewise married. Beginning divorce proceedings, Katie downloads all of Osborne's records. Somehow a disc with his memoirs winds up on the floor of a local gym, where Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and her upbeat pal Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) find it. Linda would like to get plastic surgery and her insurance won't pay for it, so they decide to try to collect a reward (or a ransom) for it. When Cox doesn't pay, they take it to the Russians! Meanwhile, Linda begins sleeping with Harry, and Harry begins to suspect that he's being followed. Richard Jenkins also stars as the gym manager who nurses a secret crush on Linda.

It's a pretty twisty plot, and the Coens manage to balance the suspense and humor masterfully; it never gets dull and they never let the comedy drop in favor of chase scenes. Where they really succeed this time is in their editing. Once again credited as fictitious editor "Roderick Jaynes," the Coens have mastered an impeccable timing worthy of Lubitsch, based on long, silent tracking shots and reaction shots. (Better still, they have turned in a quick, snappy, 90-minute film that never wears out its welcome.) Their dialogue is just as funny as ever, but Burn After Reading relies on intelligent, unspoken visual clues. After Linda accepts an internet blind date she goes through the man's wallet and finds a note asking him to pick up something from the store. It's a note only a wife would have written, and the movie lets us figure that out for ourselves without underlining it.

Overall the movie feels less significant than Fargo or No Country for Old Men, and it's doubtful that any of these oversized, brilliantly funny performances will be earning any nominations come next spring. (No single performance stands out.) Detractors of the Coens' films will once again bring up that these characters feel ridiculed and ridiculous, as if the filmmakers themselves were looking down with contempt upon their creations. I don't think that's the case; rather, it feels as if the directors have allowed their A+ list cast to really stretch out and play. Each actor seems to be fiddling around with his or her onscreen persona, playing tighter or looser than usual. Clooney, Pitt and McDormand seem to be having fun with physical restrictions, costumes, hairstyles, beards, etc. For example, Clooney wears his bulky, checkered shirts tucked into his pants, and though his character doesn't seem to notice, it adds a level of subconscious discomfort.

This type of directing shows extra trust in the actors, rather than mockery. Lately I've been complaining that too many movies have left good actors stranded by bad direction. The Coens bring their virtuoso skill to the picture and show everyone how it's done. So what if it doesn't get any Oscar nominations? It will be in league with other un-nominated movies like Trouble in Paradise or Kind Hearts and Coronets, a movie to enjoy rather than reward.

DVD Details: Universal's DVD is pretty bare-bones, but I don't care since this is one of my favorite movies of 2008. It has three featurettes, with lots of behind the scenes stuff, and a few seconds of actual interviews with the Coen brothers. There are optional subtitles and language tracks, trailers, etc. And that's about it. But don't let that stop you from seeing this.

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