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Published: Friday, 9/12/2008

Movie review: Burn After Reading ***


Pity the poor marketing team charged with developing a promotional campaign for the new Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading.

It was up to them to decide how to present the movie to the masses.

Unwisely, they opted for wacky comedy.

Be assured: There's nothing wacky about Burn After Reading.

To the marketers' defense, I'm not really sure the Coen Brothers know - or, more accurately, care - what Burn After Reading is either. Is it a thriller involving two dim-witted gym workers who find a former CIA analyst's memoirs and hatch an extortion scheme to make money? Is it a dark comedy involving rampant affairs, and ineptitude?

The film is an odd coupling of both, involving the typically desperate characters with agendas the Coens are known for creating, and the brothers' bleak, absurdist humor.

In this case it involves CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) who quits his job after he learns he is being demoted. Cox returns to his Georgetown home, where he decides to write his memoirs, much to the annoyance of his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is having an affair with a married federal marshal, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

Things get complicated when Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), co-workers at a Hardbodies Fitness Center, find themselves with a computer disc containing information for Cox's memoirs. In an effort to finance Litzke's dream of a plastic surgery makeover, the duo decides to exploit the situation and offers to return the lost disc to Cox for $50,000.

When Cox balks at the extortion attempt, Linda and Chad take the disc to the Russian embassy, and things get progressively messier from there.

The big-name cast is sharp, in particular McDormand and Malkovich, whose characters are about as close to empathetic as this film will allow. Pitt, in his first outing with the Coens, does well playing to stereotype as a mimbo (what Seinfeld dubbed the male version of a bimbo).

The Coens have crafted an intelligent script and brought it to the screen with their signature style intact. Burn After Reading looks like a Coen Brothers' film, and it sounds like a Coen Brothers' film.

The trouble is that for most of the movie, it's not a Coen Brothers film because it lacks a true identity as either a thriller or a comedy. Burn After Reading wants to be both, and never excels at either.

Previous Coen efforts such as Fargo and No Country for Old Men also juggled humor and drama, but both films had a keen awareness of what they were: Fargo was a dark comedy; No Country for Old Men was a drama.

Burn After Reading spends nearly two-thirds of its 90-minutes-plus running time trying to make up its mind how it should be categorized. It's not until the film's third act, as schemes predictably fall apart and subplots collide, that it makes the clear-cut choice to become a thriller.It's that final half-hour of spy thriller-like espionage and dramatic intrigue that imbues Burn After Reading with a much-needed sense of tension and rescues it from becoming another "interesting, but failed" effort from the Coens, along the lines of The Ladykillers.

Burn After Reading is like a popular roller-coaster. The first hour of the film is the laboriously long line you wade through to get to the ride. But after your coaster slowly climbs to the top of that hill, you forget about all the waiting as you're mercilessly launched into the joyous thrill ride that is the third act. By the end of the ride, you're so jazzed about the twists and turns at breakneck speed, you forget how much time you spent waiting in line to enjoy it.

Contact Kirk Baird at


or 419-724-6734.

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