Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

Burn After Reading
095 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Burn After Reading is so lightweight, so airy and devoid of potency, that is almost an apology of sorts for the deadly serious myth making that was No Country For Old Men. This is not unprecedented for the Joel and Ethan Coen. Back in 1998, they followed up the award-winning and acclaimed Fargo, a black comedy that none the less had dramatic potency, with the wacky comedy The Big Lebowski. Now there is nothing wrong with being light and fancy free, but the almost intentional irrelevance of this new picture renders it a success only as an acting treat.

The chief pleasure in that area is John Malkovich, who has a blast hamming it up as a disgruntled former CIA agent who has misplaced a CD containing his memoirs (yes, that CD is the McGuffin). Malkovich only does comedy every so often (Being John Malkovich, Johnny English, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy), so it's always a treat when he plays for laughs. His resentful, bitchy, and overtly ornery would-be spy dominates the first third of the picture and it's the main reason why the film's first act is its strongest.

Also having fun is Brad Pitt, who basically playing a work-a-day idiot and looking about twenty-years younger in the process (some of that Benjamin Button makeup still lingering?). George Clooney shows up here and there, as do Tilda Swinton, J.K. Simmons, and Richard Jenkins. They all seem to consider this a relaxing vacation with good friends.

If the film has an emotional beat, it belongs to Francis McDormand. As an employee of a health club who is desperate to get extensive plastic surgery, she sees the discovery of said disc as a way to get respect and love, completely oblivious to the fact that her boss (a mournful Jenkins) would happily give her both. Whether or not a character who looks like McDormand thinks so little of her appearance is intended as social commentary is irrelevant. She is the only character who moves beyond the level of low-key cartoon.

Still, even if the plot is barely there, the pacing is slow, and the climax attempts meaning that is unearned, the film works as ninety-minutes spent with terrific actors all having fun sending up their images. It is one of the more undisciplined films in the Coen Brothers archive (Fargo aside, they work best when they restrain themselves or are adapting a previous movie or a novel), but it is still intelligent and witty and an enjoyable time at the movies.

Grade: B-

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails