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September 2008
Burn after Reading

by Kam Williams

Burn after Reading

Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenwriter: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Brad Pitt
Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence)


Coen Brothers Assemble A-List Ensemble for Latest Screwball Comedy

Earlier this year, the Coen Brothers were the toast of Hollywood when they won three Academy Awards apiece for No Country for Old Men in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay categories. Not ones to rest on their laurels, the gifted siblings are already following-up that sweep with another fine film, Burn after Reading, a spoof ostensibly inspired by Burn before Reading, the autobiography of former CIA director Stansfield Turner.

Reverting from a gruesome modern Western back to the sort of cinematic fare with which they are most closely associated, Joel and Ethan have come up with a screwball comedy which measures up with their best contributions to the genre, including Fargo, Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The top-flight ensemble assembled for the production was comprised of Coen veterans Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons augmented by newcomers Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton.

Burn after Reading, which is probably best described as a combination sex farce and political potboiler, is enjoyable more for its quirky characters than for its multi-layered storyline which proves to be far more convoluted than most audience members might care to follow. What really makes the movie hilarious was the willingness of some A-list talent, especially Pitt and Clooney, to throw themselves so convincingly into unflattering roles which make them look like idiots.

The action opens at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia where we find Agent Osborne Cox (Malkovich) being confronted about his drinking problem by his boss. Ozzie opts to quit the Agency to write his memoirs, rather than accept a demotion to a position with a lower clearance level.

This development doesn’t sit well with his already disenchanted wife, Katie (Swinton), a pediatrician who’s been conducting a clandestine affair with Harry (Clooney). Harry’s a mid-level bureaucrat with the Treasury Department who, in turn, is married to Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), a best selling children’s book author.

Katie decides to divorce Ozzie, expecting that Harry will choose to leave his spouse, too. What Katie doesn’t know is that he’s also cheating on her with women he’s been wooing over the internet.

Meanwhile, she consults an attorney who advises her to dig up some dirt on her husband prior to filing any papers. The plot thickens when the classified CIA documents she downloads onto a disc off her hubby’s computer accidentally end up in the hands of Linda (McDormand) and Chad (Pitt), co-workers at Hardbodies Fitness Center.

Long-in-the-tooth Linda just happens to be desperate for money to cover the cost of four cosmetic surgery procedures she’s planning to undergo. So, over the objections of her boss (Jenkins), with the help of flamboyant Chad she hatches a plan to blackmail Ozzie But when the jaded ex-agent doesn’t come up with the cash, and Chad mysteriously disappears, Linda proceeds to approach the Russians next.

She thereby places herself under the watchful eyes of the CIA brass (David Rasche and Simmons) who mistake her motivations for something much more sinister than breast implants, a tummy tuck, liposuction and a nose job. The madcap Keystone Cop antics which ensue are every bit as funny as they are shocking and thought-provoking.

Alternatively mirthful and macabre, while poking fun at both modern mating habits and the paranoia of espionage culture, Burn after Reading is a refreshingly-intelligent diversion designed with the more cerebral cineaste in mind.