Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews
- Category: Jacqueline Monahan
- Published on 17 October 2008
Burn After Reading
Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
I’ve been a Coen-head since “Blood Simple” and their latest effort has given me another reason to stay that way.
Known for misanthropy and madcap, the Coens maneuver a formidable cast through absurd situations in a deadpan manner that makes events that much more hilarious. Tinged by tragedy and random violence, “Burn After Reading” follows the misadventures of a group of seemingly unrelated citizens, united through accidental, misinterpreted circumstances.
Perfectly set in paranoid Washington D.C., the espionage-like conspiracy theory plot is based on a fistful of misunderstandings, bruised egos, narcissism and simple greed; something that the viewer is privy to from the beginning. The characters, however, forge ahead at full throttle into a dizzying array of moronic decisions and questionable actions, all performed at an escalating level of lunacy.
Princeton-educated CIA operative and Baltic analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) has just been fired for an obvious drinking problem for which he’s in denial. His chilly, harpy/wife Katie, (Tilda Swinton) asks, no demands what he’ll do next; Cox decides to write his memoirs while Katie plans to divorce him. The disc containing Cox's unclassified CIA musings, or “memoirs” as he pretentiously refers to them, is discovered by two loopy employees at Hardbodies Fitness Center.
Linda (Frances McDormand) wants the four cosmetic surgeries that will enhance her into a perfect state of being, but she’s a little short on cash and chagrined that the company’s HBO won’t pay for elective surgery. She’s got an image to project after all. Co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) is a hyperactive, optimistic “himbo” who thinks he’s stumbled across the find of the century. The two gym employees decide to pursue a payoff for their red-hot information. Linda’s boss, Ted, (Richard Jenkins) is secretly in love with her which leads to an unfortunate involvement in the convoluted trail of the coveted but ultimately worthless disc.
Meanwhile, Katie is carrying on an affair with U.S. Marshal Harry (George Clooney). He’s married, but not letting it stop him from carrying on Internet dating when wife and Katie aren’t around. Linda haunts the Internet as well, meeting her one-night stands on park benches. One day, her meeting bench is occupied by Harry, a circumstance which unknowingly links the disparate group together, each with only a piece of the whole picture and wildly differing versions of what’s occurring.
Believing that they have a hot property, Linda and Chad visit the Russian Embassy, baffling the diplomats and unknowingly alerting the C.I.A. to their actions. Paranoid plans and surveillance (both personal and professional) ensue, sometimes with tragic results planted like seeds in the midst of this dark comedy.
C.I.A. Officer (David Rasche) is following the case for his superior (J.K. Simmons) who tries unsuccessfully to make sense of the insane progression of the comedy of errors brought about by the hapless players in the farce.
George Clooney reunites with Tilda Swinton in a more intimate way than their “Michael Clayton” roles would have allowed, each laying on the Clooney swagger and the Swinton shrew like a thick head on a familiar beer. John Malkovich almost hisses his lines as the arrogant, often-drunk Cox, full of venom and bravado (and brandy and vodka and gin).
Frances McDormand can’t help but let loose with a few favorite mannerisms that she’s become known for. Watch the eyes and lower jaw; listen to the inflection. She makes all that work for Linda, who just wants a bigger bust and smaller ass, don’t ya know. Brad Pitt runs away with Chad, who steals every scene he’s in and merits kudos for playing so believably against type. J. K. Simmons is terrific as the serious bureaucrat who takes national security measures to cover up a gossip-filled non-event without ever cracking a smile.
Writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo) let lots of the action happen off-screen, and the viewer merely hears about it. That can be disconcerting to an audience used to being spoon fed by the Hollywood production machine, but these guys make you work for the payoff. Don’t expect a direct route, either. The Coens will take you on a spiraling journey to a bull’s eye you did not expect and could not see coming.
I wouldn’t want it any other way.