Since Burn After Reading is now out on DVD, I thought I'd post the review of this film that I wrote for the school paper, The Conversationalist. Enjoy!
It’s been ten years since the Coen brothers released their comedy The Big Lebowski and over two decades since Raising Arizona, but the wait for another classic Coen comedy is over. Burn After Reading, the Coen’s new spy comedy, delivers the same offbeat humor and head scratching twists of their earlier comedies. It also gives the viewer, who may have balked at the bleak No Country for Old Men, a bit of a break without compromising the Coen commitment to profanity and violence.
Burn After Reading follows Linda Litzke, played by Frances McDormand, and her co-worker and friend, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), as they attempt to sell a disc of government secrets that they found in their workplace. They are quickly engulfed in lies and intrigue that threaten their ultimate goal – to raise enough money for the lonely Litzke to remake herself through plastic surgery. John Malkovich plays the disenfranchised CIA agent, Osborne Cox, who is trying to recoup his lost disc, and serial adulterer, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), is a fellow government employee.
As in their other films, the casting was pitch perfect. While lesser movies might get lost in a sea of stars like Brad Pitt and George Clooney, Burn manages tight dialogue, witty banter that is never cute, and characters too weird not to be believed. The dedicated Coen fan may have to wade through a line of Brad Pitt groupies to get their movie tickets, but once inside the theater, the experience is free of Hollywood stars preening for the camera. Both Pitt and Clooney play slightly goofy, unglamorous (though likeable) characters lost in a maze of CIA spooks and clandestine meetings.
Though both Pitt’s and Clooney’s performances were admirable, the standouts in this film were Frances McDormand and John Malkovich. McDormand charms the viewer in scene after scene as her guileless character wanders from one bad situation to another with her unfortunate haircut and easy smile. Though Litzke (McDormand) is far from an innocent, her quirkiness and simple motives keep her likeable throughout the film. Those going to see Malkovich repeat his usual over-the-top performances may be a bit disappointed. He manages to dial down the craziness just a notch, and ultimately, the audience is left feeling that his every word and action is justified by the craziness around him. In fact, Malkovich’s character seems almost sane in comparison to everyone else.
Though Burn After Reading does appear upon first viewing to be a return to the Coen comedies of yesteryear, there is a subtle difference between Burn and their previous films. Burn After Reading watches like an extended joke. You know the kind: The guy at the bar tells a story that makes you laugh along the way, but deep down you know there’s going to be one heck of a punch line. This movie was fun and surprising all the way through, but as for the ending? Wait for it.
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