Burn After Reading

Critic's Pick Burn After Reading
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Screenwriter: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand
Release Date: 2008-09-10
Rated: R
Genre: Comedy

Given the cast and credits, you go into the theater expecting this to be good, and there’s no real fault to find. The writing is as solid as you’d hope, though the humor in this story of two bumbling gym employees (McDormand and Pitt) who accidentally blackmail an ex-CIA agent (Malkovich) and immediately get in over their heads with national-security heavies is mostly dry, situational, and low-key. Fans expecting a return to Big Lebowski bizzaro or even Raising Arizona madcap might be disappointed, but the film is funny.

The performances are solid as well. Pitt’s dopey physical trainer is the closest the film gets to a true cult character, but Clooney (onscreen with Pitt for a single memorable scene) is great, too, playing to his strengths as a philandering U.S. Treasury agent. Malkovich, as a henpecked, bow-tie-sporting analyst, and McDormand as a health-club manager looking to reinvent herself via cosmetic surgery and online dating are both expectedly excellent, and J.K. Simmons damn near steals the movie as a befuddled CIA director.

But a screenplay of accelerating misunderstandings escalated by infidelities and punctuated with sudden, gory violence has been done by the Coens before, and it has been done much better (see Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple, Fargo). At this point they might as well have made an MS Word template for this plot structure. After nearly a quarter century of writing and directing these sorts of stories, the riskiest decision here is probably Joel Coen writing his middle-age wife into a role in which she consults with a plastic surgeon and makes out with George Clooney.

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