Osbourne Cox, a Balkan expert, resigned from the CIA because of a drinking problem, so he begins a memoir. His wife wants a divorce and expects her lover, Harry, a philandering State Department marshal, to leave his wife. A CD-ROM falls out of a gym bag at a Georgetown fitness center. Two employees there try to turn it into cash: Linda, who wants money for cosmetic surgery, and Chad, an amiable goof. Information on the disc leads them to Osbourne who rejects their sales pitch; then they visit the Russian embassy. To sweeten the pot, they decide they need more of Osbourne's secrets. Meanwhile, Linda's boss likes her, and Harry's wife leaves for a book tour. All roads lead to Osbourne's house. Written by
More "Big Lebowski" Than "Intolerable Cruelty" -- thankfully
BURN AFTER READING is laugh-out-loud funny. It's more "Big Lebowski" than "Intolerable Cruelty," though there are wisps of both, but "Burn" is not quite up to Lebowski's genius. Still, it is very, very funny and loads of fun.
From the opening moments, the Coens' latest movie -- a spy-thriller spoof -- hurls the viewer on a hilarious romp through Absurd-land. What better place to set such a story than Washington, DC?
The story involves a demoted government worker (John Malkovich) who finds himself the target of an extortion scheme by two gym workers, riotously played by Frances McDormand (a would-be gym bunny if only she could afford some plastic surgery) and Brad Pitt (a high-energy, arm-thrusting, hip-shaking fitness trainer-cum-"good Samaritan" who lands himself way in over his head). The romp soon turns dark.
As usual, the Coens' dialog is a real treat. When a co-worker points to Malkovich's alcohol problems as a reason for his demotion, Malkovich retorts, "You're a Mormon. Next to you we all have a drinking problem." And as usual in Coen-land, there's a clash between high and low brow. Malkovich's pronunciations of "mem-wahhh" for "memoir" is a hoot, and his correction of Pitt's mistaken "report" for "rapport" propels a conflict between classes and types -- symbols of a society in trouble, whose priorities are askew.
As in the Coen brothers' 1987 box-office hit RAISING ARIZONA, obsessions fuel the plot, though this time it's body (not baby) obsession. McDormand is hellbent on getting expensive elective surgery to "reinvent" herself. Pitt is a workout addict, who can barely stop moving long enough to think straight. And George Clooney, who can only stop talking when it's time to go running or jump into bed with someone, plays a G-man fixated on sex. Notions of "intelligence" and all that the word connotes (along with its antonyms) mix into the film's dark comedic brew of unintended consequences.
Where does it go? I don't want to give away any of the twists to answer that question in depth. But I would disagree with the critics who claim it doesn't go anywhere. The movie and its over-the-top, needless violence show how secretive missions even by bumbling know-nothings (whose only knowledge of undercover ops seems to come from spy flicks) can have disastrous outcomes. Secrets in Washington? Sure sounds like a topic we should all be better versed in.
Erica Rowell Author: The Brothers Grim: The Films of Ethan and Joel