Burn After Reading

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s funny that a Coen brothers film with so few laughs, No Country For Old Men, should win their first best picture Oscar when these two have made their name with a distinctive brand of black comedy, after all. With their latest film, Joel and Ethan are back on home ground again, with an original screenplay full of malicious wit and macabre humour, stinging satire and goofball humour. As always, Burn After Reading looks very handsome, and I’m not just talking about Mr Pitt and Mr Clooney.

What better place to locate this latest caper than the seat of power? Joel and Ethan have told us stories about the folks in the backwoods of their middle America home in Fargo, slackers and crims on the West Coast in The Big Lebowski and other movies, and set their stories in the Deep South of the 1930s. Everywhere they see people making asses of themselves, so why should it be any different in the leafy suburbs that service the CIA headquarters near Washington? We drop in courtesy of GoogleEarth.

Not exactly confined to the national intelligence community but near enough, Burn After Reading features various government operatives, successful authors, medical specialists and foreign diplomats and others. Yes, and there’s the gym culture too.

We drop in just as intelligence analyst Ozzie Cox (John Malkovich) finds out he’s being demoted. He quits. And what does a superannuated spy do when he’s pushed out of the firm? He writes his memoirs of course. However, getting the sack might be the least of his problems. A bad temper, a taste for whiskey at breakfast, and his wife is leaving him.

Katie (Tilda Swinton) has downloaded his personal files so she can have the upper hand when she sues him for divorce, but she leaves the disc at the gym. Hardbodies receptionist Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) who’s into Internet dating, wants some nip and tuck to improve her chances with men, but she hasn’t the funds to afford it, so when material with blackmail potential lands in her lap she organises her friend, gym instructor Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), to help out. They make quite a team.

Brad’s take on goofball Chad, the gum-chewing boofhead hooked on his aerobics moves, who Linda deploys to blackmail Ozzie and sell secrets to the Russian Embassy, is great fun. And all of the other actors, including George Clooney as a Treasury official prone to malapropisms, are terrific.

The movie is vintage Coen brothers. It’s not quite up there with Fargo and The Big Lebowski, but its sly humour and virtuoso filmmaking will have you chuckling – and wincing at the insight – all the way through.

In a capsule: Brilliant black comedy involving larger-than-life characters (Malkovich, Pitt and Clooney and others) who slip up, and things threaten to go horribly wrong. It’s vintage Coen brothers.

4 stars