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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

* * *

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton

Burn After Reading is a farcical look at paranoia, national security, and spy games that manages to be equal parts funny and sad, shallow and deep. In it characters stumble into a web of political intrigue that no one really comprehends, mostly because there’s essentially nothing to comprehend because they only think that they’re in the middle of something. I don’t know that it’s entirely successful as a film, but I liked it just enough to recommend it.

At the centre of the maelstrom that will become this plot is Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who is let go from his position as an analyst at the CIA and decides to use his newfound free time to write his memoirs, which his wife Katie (played by a wonderfully flinty Tilda Swinton) thinks would be of little appeal to readers anywhere. Katie is carrying on an affair with Harry (George Clooney), who is also married, and planning to divorce Osbourne. As part of that effort, she copies financial information from his computer to a disc (also, inadvertently, copying parts of the memoir) and that disc ends up being lost at a gym where it is found by Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand). Linda needs money for a series of plastic surgeries she’s decided she wants – nay, needs - and Chad comes up with the idea to ransom the disc.

Things get increasingly convoluted. When Osbourne refuses to pay for the return of the disc, Linda decides to try to sell it to the Russians (why the Russians? you might ask and you would be joined by pretty much everyone other than Linda). Meanwhile, Harry – who Linda meets over the internet and begins dating - becomes increasingly paranoid as he realizes that he’s being followed, and the CIA, having been tipped off by the Russian embassy about the attempted sale of “information,” is baffled by the various goings-on they witness through subsequent surveillance (“They all seem to be sleeping together,” a perplexed agent informs his supervisor).

The set-up for the story is a bit slow – I’d go so far as to say that the first half-hour plods along – but once the ball gets rolling, the plot unwinds itself at an almost dizzying speed. To be honest, I didn’t really start to like the movie until Pitt showed up and proceeded to be awesome during every moment he was on-screen. He has so many great scenes, from his initial phone conversation with Osbourne where he adopts a raspy voice to extort him (“I thought you might be worried... about the security... of your shit.”), to his face-to-face meeting with Osbourne where he keeps squinting his eyes in an attempt to appear tough. This last scene ends with Osbourne illuminating all the reasons why Chad is stupid including the fact that he came to the meeting on a bike, and all Chad gets out of it is that Osbourne has mistaken his bike for a Schwinn. Pitt is genius at being a moron.

The comedy that is Chad is offset by a few more serious elements: Linda’s self-esteem issues which manifest themselves in both her desire for plastic surgery and her desperation for the approval of the men she meets over the internet (she cites sense of humour as an important factor and yet when one dates fails to pass the test, she sleeps with him anyway), and her boss’ (Richard Jenkins) infatuation with her which leads him to involve himself in an increasingly volatile situation despite his reservations. But for all that, this is a comedy and one that, in its brilliant final exchange, effectively summarizes the insanity of the last decade.

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