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FILM REVIEW: Burn After Reading

A Buzzkill: After No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading is a let-down

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Burn After Reading
Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Rated R

Burn After Reading is in some ways a comic kindred spirit with Joel and Ethan Coens' wildly successful Oscar-bait No Country for Old Men. Burn After Reading also sketches an America of graft, greed, and violence. Though in this go-around, the Coen's jaundiced take on American life is played out in what to many will feel like the more apropos Washington, D.C., corridors of power, instead of the hinterlands of rural Texas.

The Washington of the Coen's beltline comedy is the province of drunks and half-wits, power trippers and halfcocked CIA ops. Nearly everyone is desperately angling for a piece of the pie and having their hand slapped back in the process. From their various high-to-low perches on the economic ladder, these laughably petty people are equally conniving and desperate, though true treachery tends to dwell in the upper reaches of the socioeconomic system.

Burn After Reading also continues the Coens' recent interest in the semiotics of hair. No Country for Old Men boasted the homicidal Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in a demented Prince Valiant 'do. And the monstrous ballbuster in Burn After Reading, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), boasts a crown of fire: flame-red hair to bespeak her inner hellfire. Post-Michael Clayton, Swinton is becoming the go-to gal for uptight lady execs, this time as a tightly-wound British pediatrician who appears to despise children, her husband, CIA op Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), and even the twitchy married lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who shares her bed.

In the creaky opening moments of Burn After Reading, Katie learns Osborne has quit his job at the CIA after being demoted. In the blink of an eye, she has a toad-like lawyer on retainer. Though convinced he can exact his revenge for his CIA-demotion in a tell-all memoir, Osborne instead finds daytime TV, booze, and then ejection from his home.

Across town, at the Hardbodies gym, two employees get hold of a disc containing Cox's memoir. While their nervous boss (Richard Jenkins playing another deflated sad sack) backs slowly away from the disc like an anthrax-tainted envelope, personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and gym administrator Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) are sure Osborne will pay handsomely for the return of his top secrets.

An Energizer bunny of twitching ass and manic finger-snapping, Chad is a typical Coen innocent who lacks an explanation for his criminal mischief. Linda is an equal dim bulb. Her motives are clearer, as seen in close-ups of her belly and crow's feet. Disgusted by her sagging, middle-aged Internet-dating options, Linda has entered into a personal self-improvement campaign, with an expensive litany of plastic surgeries she can't afford to pay for. In the absurd storylines that ensue, Linda begins dating Harry Pfarrer, an online Lothario whose Coenian tells include an addiction to personal fitness and fear of being lactose intolerant.

Though Pitt's man cake, dimwit personal trainer is a one-note joke, a caricature erected on the certainty that those who devote their lives to fitness are morons, Clooney's sex-addict nutcase is slightly meatier, funnier stuff, as enjoyable in his own way as Malkovich's dulcet-voice, vindictive spook.

You could stop global-warming with the combined frostiness of the human glaciers in Burn After Reading, who despite a variety of distracting ticks, are a relatively joyless lot. The bed-hopping is rampant, but human warmth sorely lacking, with characters too focused on their own bottom-line to bother with empathy or love.

But, as is true of lesser Coen works like Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Ladykillers, there's an unsatisfying bite and a thinness to Burn After Reading's cynicism and casual misanthropy. Their characters are unredeemable, easy comic marks, and none strikes a satisfying note of comic excess. None is a likable screw-up.

The Coens have always delighted in setting caricatures against a flat-line American landscape of casual sex and violence. What No Country had going for it was its mythic status was an overarching attitude of despair at the unstoppable march of mortality symbolized by Anton Chigurh.

The film celebrated a certain rugged America while at the same time digging its grave. What Burn After Reading offers is hollow, not especially insightful comedy about self-involved people whose ugly ambitions intersect and then end in brain-splattering mayhem.

But what does a lackluster project matter, coming off four Academy Awards and a devout fan base? Like Wal-Mart and obesity, the Coens are an American institution with no chance of going away despite anyone's protests.

With four film projects currently in the works, the Coens abide.

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