Burn After Reading

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Burn After Reading
Review (8.5/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

It is hard not to love the Coen brothers. While everyone else in Hollywood is preoccupied with pandering to what they believe film audiences want to see (often with poor results), the Coen brothers make films solely on their own terms. And, if the audience happens to enjoy their finished product, so be it. The Coen brothers cater to no-one.

Fresh from the success of “No Country for Old Men”, any other directors would have followed up with another serious drama, determined to prove that their Oscar win was not an anomaly. But not the Coen brothers. Typically swimming against the current, they created a comedy. In fact, their next four slated films are comedies.

Of course, even a comedy in the world of the Coen brothers is not your typical comedy. Their latest project, “Burn After Reading”, is a comedy so dark that only the least deserving characters emerge unscathed as the end credits roll. It is deliciously cynical and naughty.

Burn After Reading” follows the antics of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), two hapless gym employees who take possession of a disk found in the gym’s locker room containing the memoirs of Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a disgruntled former CIA agent. Through a series of missteps, the two become embroiled in an extortion plot that cannot end any way but badly.

The film also stars Tilda Swinton in the role of Katie Cox, Osborne’s uptight wife and George Clooney in the role of Harry Pffarer, Osborne and Katie’s slimy friend.

As a product of the Coen brothers, “Burn After Reading” is smart, witty, and dark. As the Coen brothers accurately observed during the film’s press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, it is a work comprised of characters who are “idiots and knuckleheads”. Few of the characters are sympathetic, most make poor choices and, in the end, all but the least deserving face the consequences. The humor is in the irony.

In addition to their growing list of “regulars” (Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons), the Coens have added Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton to their growing list of alumni. As a general rule, they write their scripts with certain actors in mind, and “Burn After Reading” is no exception. They noted during our interview that they write for actors who they feel will, “inhabit the material they way it is written”.

While “Burn After Reading” features a talented cast who deliver typically strong performances, one of the film’s surprises had to be the comedic performance by Brad Pitt. Once again in the spirit of playing against type, the Coens have not cast him as a handsome leading man, but rather as a bubble-headed personal trainer who, as Pitt notes, “makes the wrong choices...has limited experience and makes the wrong assumptions”. It is the most original role in which Pitt has been cast since “Snatch”, and it may very well earn him a Golden Globe nomination.

Burn After Reading” is not a film that panders to the increasingly low expectations that have been created by Hollywood. It is not vulgar, crass or raunchy. It is a smart, unpredictable comedy that will leave you feeling anything but burned after watching it.

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