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The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers
by Mark T. Conard
(Hardcover from Amazon coming in November)
. "Burn After Reading"

After "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" one doesn't think twice about seeing a Coen Brothers comedy satire. Unfortunately, "Burn After Reading" is not one I'd run to see twice.

Not that it's terrible. It's just not up to expectations. If you look at their list of films you'll see that they can be very uneven. The fabulous "Fargo," a work of pure genius, was followed by "The Big Lebowski," arguably a lesser success; and preceded by "Barton Fink," a misfire (pun intended) for the tolerant side of the arthouse.

The plot device here is set up with the economy of a Chaplin classic. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a career CIA agent, is demoted to a lower ranking and security level than he has enjoyed throughout his career. The scene has all the clandestine atmospherics and spare ceremony one might expect in the locked down cells of the secret service. Alarmed and paranoid, Cox is shocked to hear he's being charged with drinking too much--enough for it to be used against him in this way. He decides to quit and write his memoirs.

When the disc containing his manuscript winds up in a training bag at Ted Treffon's (Richard Jenkins) health club, it's found by none-too-sharp trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and brought to his conspiratorial pal, trainer-in-charge Linda Litzke (Frances MacDormand). When she scans the contents of the disc, her impulsive nature takes over and she surmises that the data, with a rich dose of CIA references, can only mean she and Chad are in possession of something they could trade for big bucks. The CIA itself might be willing to pay a hefty sum to retrieve it and them on the back for their service to the nation. Litzke's dream, though, is to make enough to pay the 50,000 dollars worth of tucks and suctions her cosmetic surgeon (Jeffrey DeMunn) quoted for the suite of operations she hankers for.

But, dreams be dashed! The counter-intelligence agency turns the pair down; ditto with the Russian embassy; and they finally phone memoirist Cox himself--who goes bonkers when he realizes he's being shaken down for a ransom by a couple of idiots.

Meanwhile, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is sleeping with anyone with two legs including ice-lady Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) to whom he's swearing undying love and commitment while she treats him like a boy-toy possession. And, he can swear that someone's been following him. False promises and betrayals are flying around like bats on a rampage, everyone's coming to concertedly wrong assumptions, and CIA agent in charge (J.K. Simmons) is directing his dour reporting officer (David Rasche) how to handle an increasingly bizarre set of events that includes the possibility of an international incident and a dead body.

These CIA scenes may be the most hilarious in the movie thanks to the confusion of events and unfathomable motivations. Rasche's droll delivery of his good thing-bad thing status reports inspiring the boss's pragmatic expediencies is a finely understated howl.

For me, I had a hard time retaining my interest through the first two act, as the antics are more laborious than funny. But the criss-crossing events finally click, like a chemical reaction that finally gels, and it pays off in the 3rd act when the discombobulations bubble up some slapsticky hilarity to stimulate the dormant funny bone.

Get it now!
The Soundtrack by composer Carter Burwell

It doesn't work that way for everyone. There was a steady stream of chuckles heard in the audience with which I saw "Burn After Reading." Which is a pretty good indication of strong boxoffice to come, so I sat there hoping the amusement would become infectious, and it ultimately did. But, as much fun as the actors had with their Coen Brother's comedic misadventure, strongly imparted to the more receptive part of the crowd, one might wish for better overall.

For one thing, the loose-nut clown character that Pitt attempts to convey isn't really within his range and probably outside his DNA. The writing of his part doesn't help, nor does the spiky bleached hair. It's a reach that wasn't quite within his grasp though, it must be added, that he's perfectly consistent. Which means that there was way too much of him that wasn't working. The rest of the cast showed much more agility for the requisite madcap footworks with Malkovich standing out a bit from the ensemble.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer
A hit with women but not exactly a hit man.

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