Burn After Reading (Focus Features, R)

film_burn_sm.jpgReally, only Malkovich and Juno‘s J.K. Simmons (who is only in a couple of scenes) come out of this mess with some sort of dignity.







Joel and Ethan Coen have made their career on genre-hopping as much as they can get away with—need I remind you that they followed up their then-greatest success, the 1996 thriller Fargo, with the 1998 noir comedy The Big Lebowski?—but after all these years, their career formula has gotten stale, as has their particular brand of dry comedy. I was excited as everyone else was last year when No Country for Old Men was the return to form we had all been long waiting for from the Coens, but most of that was just relief that they hadn’t lost it altogether after a pretty alarming string of duds (The Ladykillers? Intolerable Cruelty?). But they are back on their saddeningly tired ways with their new comedy-thriller, Burn After Reading.

Burn tells an intentionally byzantine story that involves a recently fired CIA agent named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) who, in his new state of being unemployed, decides to write his memoirs. A disc containing some of the memoirs is found by the employees of local gym Hard Bodies (said employees include Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins), who recognize it as "important CIA shit," and they decide to blackmail Cox with it. Still elsewhere, Osborne’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with the dopily smarmy Harry (George Clooney), who himself is married, and having another affair with McDormand’s Linda Litzke.

Admittedly, Burn has probably the best cast of any movie this year, but unfortunately it’s more fun to sit in the theater and think about what movies these people have already been in with each other rather than actually paying attention to the film. (Brad and George are in the Ocean’s movies together; George and Tilda were rivals in last year’s Michael Clayton; was it weird for them to become lovers for this film? etc.) What’s worse is that, by and large, these great actors are pretty bad here: McDormand is alarmingly awful, Pitt is wasted on a very one-dimensional character, and Jenkins isn’t given much to do. I have never cared for the Clooney/Coens collaborations; I think Clooney’s considerable charms are much better cultivated by one of his other regular directors, Steve Soderbergh.

Really, only Malkovich and Juno‘s J.K. Simmons (who is only in a couple of scenes) come out of this mess with some sort of dignity. It seemed interesting prior to having seen the movie that the Coens ditched their longtime (and thoroughly fantastic) cinematographer Roger Deakins in favor of Children of Men‘s equally fantastic Emmanuel Lubezki, but apparently Joel keeps his DPs on a tight leash, because Lubezki’s work looks interchangeable with the work Deakins usually does for them; regardless, it has already been announced that Deakins is shooting the next Coen Brothers movie, A Serious Man, so Lubezki must not have worked out too well.

I don’t really know what to say here; I love the Coens, but they’ve only had one good movie so far in the past ten years. Maybe if they were a little less prolific their odd brand of humor wouldn’t get so tiresome—hopefully they won’t turn into the next Woody Allen. That is, assuming they haven’t already. | Pete Timmermann

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