Sunday, September 14, 2008


BURN AFTER READING is a lot of fun. It is a comedy and it hits the comedic notes. This is a comedy that doesn't have Will Farrell or Ben Stiller written all over it. This thing is sophisticated. It is quirky. It is disturbing. It will also kick you out of the theater with a desire for more of these people and their ridiculous lives.

Summarizing this film is difficult. J.K. Simmons sums it up as one big clusterf*ck at the end of the film, and he is bang-on.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA guy who has been demoted in his organization. He quits. He starts to write his memoirs. Through a chain of silly, mentally challenged events, his rough draft (on a CD) winds out in the hands of Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand).

We know that Linda wants to have some serious cosmetic surgery to keep age at bay and to secure a decent man in her life. She has a plan, and it is going to take some money. Chad works with her at the gym, and he is just a happy-go-lucky guy who is out to have fun. Extorting some cash from Osbourne Cox is fun, and Chad is all over it. I have to tell you right now, that this is one of the dimmest roles Brad Pitt has ever done. He even had more brain cells as the boy toy in THELMA AND LOUISE.

Osbourne's wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with this guy named Harry (George Clooney) and somehow through all of these characters, a lot of bed-swapping and general self-serving intentions, everyone is infected and bothered by the extortion plan of Chad and Linda.

The Coen brothers like their darkness, and this movie brings it to you. Things that are nice get snuffed out. Things that are dark and evil seem to prosper. Most interestingly is that a lot of effects and budget were spared by the constant updating of J.K. Simmons who is some high up CIA mucky-muck. Major parts of the plot are revealed in the Simmons briefings. The tool is a good one, because the briefings are funny and deflating at the same time. Simmons' reactions to the antics of these characters are basically what ours (the viewers) are. This is an interesting play on the whole presentation of the film.

In the end, this is a story about nothing. Nothing is something that the Coen Brothers like to look at and consider. THE BIG LEBOWSKI is an example of the nothingness that I speak of. In the end, all of the riddles are solved and perhaps (outside of the obligatory low body-count) no one outside of the directly affected characters will notice much of a difference in the rest of the world. All of the plot mechanisms, all of the dastardly deeds, all of the violence, it all folds neatly into a package that really doesn't matter and can be shelved somewhere. Most of the loose ends are tied up, and the CIA makes sure that there are no bodies to be found.

There will be deep scholarly examinations into the societal finger-wagging that the Coen brothers have done here. There will be a lot of studying of the dialogue and the nuances of the various characters. Oh yes, this film has "study me in film school" written all over it.

For matters of brevity, and quite honestly, because the film required multiple viewings, I am going to cite the one thing that is crystal clear about this film: The actors put in their work.

Malkovich is completely pissed off in just about every scene he is in. He has fury and pent up aggression mastered here. He drops f-bombs like he means them. His dialogue is hurled at everyone in his vicinity, and it is quite apparent that he wants this well-crafted profanity to penetrate and hurt. Malkovich is a machine.

Frances McDormand is heartbreaking as a simple woman living in complex times. Her inner spirit is gentle and longing. Her exterior is worn and her body language is perfect. She puts her heart on the screen for us, and it is a damaged, beautiful thing. Frances McDormand becomes the character Linda Litzke and it is impossible to look at her while she is onscreen and think of any other character she has ever played. This is not the woman from DARKMAN. This is far from FARGO. She has found this character and served her up raw.

Brad Pitt's Chad is mesmerizing. When he is onscreen, you have no choice but to stare at him. He has it all under control. His character is dim, and the part that he plays in the film is a stretch, but Pitt takes to this Chad character well. Almost too well. The crime is that there is not enough of an explanation of Chad and his inner-workings. This is only something that comes to you in retrospect, because while he is onscreen, he is slowly showing you bits and pieces of this concoction. Brad Pitt gives us Chad in every way you have seen in the ads for this film. He does it, and he is complete with it. Chad is a wonderful character, no one else could have done this.

George Clooney's Harry is so full of energy that he is literally twitching when onscreen. He is twitching and chewing the scenery and stealing every scene he is in. His gaze is so intense and his actions are so animated, that it is hard to recall that he usually stands around in nice suits and lounges through most of his films. Furthermore, this isn't the porker that you remember from SYRIANNA. This is a man who has ripped his body into some lean shape and is literally buzzing around your head like a zealous, fecal-happy fly.

There are others as well, and they all deliver their roles like champs.

Is it a good movie? Sure it is. It is fun. Will you survive the wait till it drops on DVD? Yes you will. It is a movie that requires multiple viewings. It will also leave you trying to piece together a sequel...something...anything just so you can see this machinery work together again.

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