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Saturday, December 13, 2008

BURN AFTER READING -- DVD review by porfle

One thing about the Coen brothers--you never know what to expect when you sit down to watch one of their films. This is especially true of their comedies, which can range from lowbrow slapstick (RAISING ARIZONA) to chilly, intellectual aloofness (THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE).

As for their latest, BURN AFTER READING (2008), I just watched it twice and I still don't know what to make of it. It's an intense political thriller filled with intrigue, except that there aren't any politics and the intrigue all stems from a complex web of misunderstanding, paranoia, and just plain stupidity. It's like a BOURNE movie in which Matt Damon has been replaced with the Three Stooges.

John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, a low-level CIA analyst who quits in a huff after being demoted due to a drinking problem, and then sets about writing his memoirs, which somehow end up in the hands of Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt), a couple of dingbats who work at a health club.

Certain that they've stumbled onto some vital classified information, Linda and Chad attempt to blackmail Cox so that Linda can finally afford a series of cosmetic surgeries that will improve her social life. When Cox refuses to pay, they take the floppy disc to the Russian embassy, where a bemused official named Krapotkin doesn't know what to make of it or them.

Meanwhile, Cox's ice-cold wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with their health-nut friend Harry (George Clooney), a sex addict who has also hooked up with Linda through a computer dating service. Katie's planning to divorce Osbourne and marry Harry, while Harry still loves his wife (who's planning to divorce him and is having him shadowed by a detective) and also is falling for Linda.

When Linda sends Chad to Osbourne's house to try and dig up more secret information, he runs into Harry, who thinks he's a spy. The increasingly paranoid Harry then discovers that Linda's involved in the whole thing and thinks she's a spy, too. An important element in all this is that Harry's job requires him to carry a gun, which isn't a good idea under the circumstances.

It's a hard story to put into a nutshell, and it's even harder to convey just how goofy and off-the-wall this movie is. All the trappings of the political potboiler are here--car chases, shootings, break-ins, deceptions, people being followed by shadowy figures, the whole shebang--but while one half of the cast is made up of serious people living their lives in the really real world, the other half is composed of colossal idiots blundering their way into this serious milieu and gumming up the works with catastrophic results.

The Coens direct it like a straightfaced thriller with the chameleonlike Carter Burwell supplying a pulse-pounding musical score, and their deadpan approach to this material makes it delightfully fun to watch. It's also wonderfully unpredictable--I dare anyone to try and figure out what's going to happen next at any point in the story--with one or two developments that are wild enough to give the viewer whiplash. Like Janet Leigh's fatal shower in PSYCHO or the jaw-dropping ending of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., this story often manages to whip the rug right out from under us with prankish glee.

Frances McDormand gives us another quirky, memorable Coen character here, but unlike FARGO's Marge Gundersen, her Linda Litzke is a ditzy wacko. Brad Pitt has a great time playing the equally idiotic Chad, and together they make quite a pair. George Clooney is hilarious as the increasingly frazzled Harry, whose life is flying to pieces around him for reasons he can't even begin to understand. Malkovich, of course, is fascinating to watch as the equally paranoid Osbourne Cox, as he tries to figure out who the hell Linda and Chad are and what insidious government conspiracy is closing in around him.

As his wife Katie, Tilda Swinton is about as cold and ruthless a bitch as you could imagine. Another Coen regular, Richard Jenkins, expertly underplays his part as usual and is probably the film's most sympathetic character. In lesser roles, David Rasche and J.K. Simmons are pitch-perfect as a couple of bland, weary CIA officials struggling to make sense of the whole twisted affair--their final scene together is a subtle, deftly-played wrap-up that had me howling in giddy disbelief as the closing credits appeared, aghast that the Coen brothers had pulled off something so audaciously messed up.

The DVD is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1, and it looks and sounds fine to me. There are three brief bonus featurettes: "Finding the Burn", a making-of short; "DC Insiders Run Amuck", a look at the film's talented cast; and "Welcome Back George", which marks George Clooney's third collaboration with the Coens.

BURN AFTER READING won't appeal to everyone, which is something Joel and Ethan Coen have never seemed overly concerned about. They appear content to make whatever kind of film strikes their fancy at the time and let it find whatever audience happens to latch onto it. I'm glad I latched onto this one, because not only did I have a grand time watching it, but the characters have been running around inside my head all day reenacting scenes from the movie, and I kinda like it.

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