Sunday, September 28, 2008

Film Review: Burn After Reading

Following up their Oscar triumphing No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers dished out a playful and wry take on intelligence in their latest film Burn After Reading. Set in Washington D.C., Burn tells the story of Osbourne Cox, a mid-ranking CIA agent who has been unfairly fired. As any jobless mid-lifer would do, Cox, played by John Malkovich, decides to write his memoir. From there a disk containing Cox’s writings ends up in the hands of Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, a pair of idiot employees at a local gym. The two embark on an amateur venture into the world of blackmail and hack-espionage in their quest to make money and end up getting mixed up with Cox’s cheating wife and her lover.

Though John Malkovich does an excellent job of portraying the spiteful and broken down Cox, the story quickly shifts away from him to a web of seemingly unrelated characters who are miraculously joined together. This tactic is usually a mistake. Fortunately this contrived story finds strength in its own absurdity. Plays on intelligence/stupidity are used on everyone from high-ranking CIA officials to the plot driving dimwitted conspirators. The only thing holding this film back is Brad Pitt. He’s simply too much of a celebrity to take seriously, or un-seriously as he is supposed to be in this film. His character is supposed to be annoying but considering how annoying he is in real life, almost any other actor would have been a better choice.

Besides that, what made this film do it for me were things I enjoy in most other Coen Brothers films. An abundance of tension is used to keep the audience engaged. Bad guy stereotypes aren’t always given their just desserts, just as characters we empathize with receive tragedy over salvation. And underlying everything else, this film takes the myth of love/marriage and thoroughly dispels it.

In Coen Brothers films it’s the little things that count and Burn After Reading is no exception. Dry one liners are well written and performed, as are the bit characters who contribute to some of its funnier moments. Another high note of Burn are its Hitchcockian red herrings which work to delay the unraveling of mystery. Though this film is hardly the Oscar material that No Country turned out to be, Burn After Reading stands on its own as a smart and offbeat comedy. Its flaws are minor enough to be overlooked and considering what it had to follow up I can’t say I was disappointed.

The Good: Bit role gems such as J.K. Simmons as a C.I.A. official are worth every bit of the $9 or more you’ll pay to see this at the theatre.

The Bad: Without spoiling too much, the climax is somewhat muted and the abrupt conclusion leaves a few loose ends.

The Ugly: Brad Pitt

See this film if: You’d enjoy sleeping with your twice removed 3rd cousin… and that cousin is Dr. Strangelove.

No comments: