- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

“Burn After Reading,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s follow-up to their Oscar-approved “No Country for Old Men,” is an equally dark tale tinged with humor and teeming with Oscar winners.

The brothers’ new film is set in and around the District, not the open plains. However, the characters ultimately are as dense as the poor saps who meet their maker in “Old Men.” The film is a cocktail of infidelity and Beltway conspiracies that savages an array of easy targets. Those who accuse the Coens of disliking their characters will have plenty to feast on here.

John Malkovich kicks off “Burn” as Osborne Cox, a CIA lifer who just got a demotion without so much as a hint as to why. Furious, he quits and fills his free time penning his memoirs - a word he pronounces with haughty perfection.

His notes for the book, saved on a single disc, fall into the hands of a pair of dense gym employees. Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) see the disc as a financial bonanza, like slipping on ice outside a fancy restaurant, as Linda puts it.

The pair decide to blackmail Osborne. Linda needs money for four plastic-surgery procedures. She says she has done all she can with her current body. Chad could use the cash to restock his iPod. He never goes anywhere without ear-bud wires dangling down his neck.

The twosome leverage every pop-culture spy reference to concoct their doomed-from-the-word-go plan. Meanwhile, Osborne’s wife (Tilda Swinton) is stepping out with a Treasury official named Harry (a hirsute George Clooney). Their bond eventually overlaps the other stories, putting key players in harm’s way and complicating an already knotty tale.

“Burn After Reading” slams government bureaucracy without stopping the narrative to do so. It’s equally unflinching in how it portrays the film’s protagonists. Mr. Clooney, whose character is the least fully formed despite a bold comic turn, is a hedonistic slug with a soft spot for his broken marriage. Linda’s self-esteem is lower than Chad’s IQ. Miss Swinton is as icy as her villainess in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Only Mr. Pitt’s Chad emerges unscathed here, and he’s portrayed as a few notches above a simpleton. In a brilliant comic performance, Mr. Pitt, his frame poured into a series of garish gym suits, makes Chad the most hyper fitness instructor since Richard Simmons tugged on a pair of running shorts.

Had the rest of the cast tried to match his manic turn, “Burn” would have flamed out quickly. However, veterans including J.K. Simmons, David Rasche and Richard Jenkins play the material blessedly straight.

The Coens’ newest script, for all its triangulations, is one of their least compelling. The near-constant reliance on profanity doesn’t help, and the film lacks any instantly memorable lines. Also, a sudden burst of violence around the two-thirds mark all but fractures the film’s comedic tone. In a way, “Burn” never fully recovers.

“Burn” luxuriates in District locales and references to Georgetown and the Kennedy Center Honors, but it won’t make local residents beam with pride. Coen brothers devotees, however, will lick their chops over the duo’s latest dark-comedy confection.

★★★

TITLE: “Burn After Reading”

RATING: R (Adult language, sexual situations and comic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Music by Carter Burwell

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.filminfocus.com/focus-movies/burn-after-reading/movie-splash.ph

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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