"Burn After Reading": You'll laugh until it stops
The Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading" is an insanely hilarious comedy populated with imbeciles.
Seattle Times staff reporter
"Burn After Reading,"with George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. 96 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. Several theaters.
It's about time someone stepped in to fill this vacuum: a CIA, Internet-dating, fitness-club black comedy.
The Coen brothers' follow-up to Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men" is a cruelly, insanely hilarious comedy populated with imbeciles whose appetites lead to giant helpings of Just Desserts. As caper movies starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt go, it's more of an "Ocean's IQ of 11." But if you left "No Country" scratching your head about the offhand way a major character exits, the Coens give you a much bigger helping of that this time, good and hard.
In other words, I wish it had an ending, but I laughed until I abruptly stopped.
When pompous, bow-tied CIA analyst Ozzy Cox (John Malkovich) loses his job because of his drinking, he pens a memoir. (Malkovich, in peak eccentric form, even makes the word "memoir" irritating.) His ice-cold wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is having an affair with Harry (manic Clooney, star of the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty"), a married U.S. marshal who continually boasts that he never discharged his revolver in 20 years. This will change.
When Katie decides to dump Ozzy, a disc containing the memoir winds up left in a Hardbodies gym. The two employees who find it try to blackmail him: Linda (Frances McDormand, Oscar winner for the Coens' "Fargo" and wife of Joel) and Chad (Pitt). She's an aging Internet-dater obsessed with the plastic surgery she can't afford, and he's a pompadoured moron among morons given to energetic jazzy outbursts of movement. Their boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins), is hopelessly in love with the clueless Linda. Two things to note: I've never been convinced that Pitt can, uh, act, but he's the funniest part of the movie, and even watching him just vacantly sip a drink is hysterical. And yes, it gets funnier every single time someone repeats with complete seriousness, the gym's name — peaking with Ted, who finds himself in a dire situation, saying, "I'm not here representing Hardbodies."
Clooney's Harry is a vain sexaholic who makes David Duchovny look like one of the Jonas Brothers, augmenting his Katie romps with frequent Internet scores, and methodically building something in his basement that you're never likely to find at a Chuck E. Cheese's. When he hooks up with Linda, events for all the dopey, egotistic characters are ready to spiral out of control.
Except ... I suppose the critical equivalent would be to end this review right here.
After all the buildup of black humor, punctuated by occasional shocking violence, most of the major players arrive at their destinies off-screen, simply described by a couple of profanely confused CIA higher-ups (J.K. Simmons and David Rasche). One of them asks, "What did we learn?"
I don't know. That we're all just as empty as the movie's Seinfeldian characters if we like the movie, and the Coens are mocking us for it? That the Coens are making some sort of pretentious comment on narrative expectations and formulaic movies? Or that they just ran out of gas and opted for a lazy, Ed-Woodian way to wrap up a bunch of story lines? ("Pull the strings!")
But in all fairness, even the two CIA guys pondering the question are damn funny.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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