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In “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers have taken some of cinema’s top and most expensive actors and chucked them into Looney Tunes roles in a thriller set in and about Washington.
It takes awhile to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humor of “Burn” because this is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly.
As a follow-up to last year’s multiple-Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men,” Joel and Ethan Coen clearly are in a prankish mood, knocking out a minor piece of silliness with all the trappings of an A-list studio movie. Those who relish this movie might treat it as the second coming of “The Big Lebowski”; those who don’t might wonder at a story in which no character has a level head. Signs look good, though, for a solid North American opening Sept. 12 following Wednesday’s opening-night debut at the Venice Film Festival.
The linchpin to the shenanigans comes in a particularly funny scene in which a CIA analyst, played by a caustic John Malkovich, gets summarily fired. He retreats to write a tell-all memoir amid bouts of heavy drinking. Under the circumstances, his wife (an anal-retentive Tilda Swinton) schemes to divorce him in favor of her married lover, federal marshal George Clooney, under the false assumption Clooney will leave his author-wife (Elizabeth Marvel).
Meanwhile, seemingly in another universe, sports gym employee Frances McDormand’s forlorn love life causes her to obsess over expensive plastic surgeries, oblivious to the fact that her boss (a moon-eyed Richard Jenkins) is obsessed with her. When a computer disk containing the cashiered CIA analyst’s first draft falls into her hands, she and her pickle-brained colleague (Brad Pitt) scheme to blackmail the author.
Everyone here is suffering from a full-blown midlife crisis. All operate in a morality-free zone. The conviction that the grass is greener anywhere but here is rampant. Curiously, everyone looks over his shoulder, certain he is being followed. This is the one and only time the characters are right about something.
The Coens, assuming triple roles of writers, directors and producers, give each person a special eccentricity. Pitt moves his body as if in a marathon aerobics session. Clooney never walks into a new lover’s abode without commenting on the flooring. Jenkins is a push-me-pull-you doll, fatally lured by McDormand’s charms but repelled by her online dating and involvement in blackmail. Malkovich has a lifetime’s supply of cynicism. Swinton fails to “read” anyone.
The key thing is that every actor is riffing on his or her screen persona. The guys who pulled off all those casino heists, the smart-cookie Minnesota police officer, the stars of many Sundance films — yep, they’re all idiots. One of the film’s funniest lines comes when a CIA officer listens to a report of everyone’s behavior, including murder and an attempt to leak the memoirs to the Russian embassy — rather prescient that last plot point.
He shakes his head and asks an agent, “Report back to me” — he pauses with a frown — “when it makes sense.”
Production: Focus Features, StudioCanal, Relativity Media, Working Title.
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, JK Simmons. Directors-screenwriters-producers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Executive producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robert Graf.
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki.
Production designer: Jess Gonchor. Music: Carter Burwell.
Costume designer: Mary Zophres. Editor: Roderick Jaynes.
Rated R, 95 minutes.
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