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Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading

Coen brothers create a comedy that scorches

'Burn After Reading' blends laughs, pathos, violence

They have made violent thrillers, screwball farces, classic remakes and literary adaptations, but look at nearly 25 years of Coen brothers' movies and you see essentially two types.

There are bloody dramas that pause for offbeat comedy. And there are offbeat comedies that are interrupted by bloody drama. And all that changes is the proportion of laughs to violence.

The genres tend to alternate, though. The dark mysteries of "Blood Simple" are immediately followed by the madcap predicaments of "Raising Arizona"; the contained chills of "Fargo" are chased away by the pothead dizziness of "The Big Lebowski." The bleaker the drama, the wilder the comedy that follows.

So, after "No Country for Old Men," Coen cultists knew the next one was going to be extreme.

"Burn After Reading" is that, indeed.

Extremely well-cast. Extremely well-written, too (with one of those clockwork plots -- beloved of the Coens since "Blood Simple" -- in which people, fatally, act before getting all the facts).

Also extremely violent -- and, at times, extremely sad.

The story begins when mid-level CIA analyst John Malkovich gets fired -- and goes home to cold, disapproving wife Tilda Swinton. She's having an affair with serial adulterer George Clooney -- who's also having an affair with slightly desperate personal trainer Frances McDormand (who works at a gym with Brad Pitt).

Got it? Good.

Because that's when things start to get complicated -- as McDormand and Pitt try to score some money by selling secrets to the Russians, mysterious agents start shadowing other mysterious agents, Clooney gleefully unpacks various marital aids and Malkovich wanders around in his boxers, drunk and cursing. A lot.

The Malkovich character is a little sketchy, and feels a bit like one of the half-baked private jokes the Coens are prone to ("Hey, wouldn't it be funny to have John Malkovich cursing all the time?"). But Swinton is a commanding presence as the spy's icy wife, and Pitt is very funny as a frosted-hair gym rat.

Good, too, mostly, are Clooney and McDormand. Clooney draws a very sly portrait of a narcissistic, health-conscious philanderer (who sees the boudoir as just another workout). And there's a tragic edge to McDormand's character, too -- the way she covers her disgust with her own body under a veneer of perky optimism.

In fact, for a comedy -- like so many Coen comedies -- "Burn After Reading" is actually rather sad, particularly when it stays with McDormand's character. There's a lovely, bittersweet tracking shot of her walking through the park, looking for the date she met online -- and passing bench after bench of men waiting for their own -- that's quietly heartbreaking.

It's a shame, in many ways, that the Coens don't stay with that simple story -- and instead bring in spies, and homicide, and the inevitable shots of stars making dumb faces for the camera. (The brothers have always been too fond of characters who aren't as smart as they think -- which tends to give their comedies a smug, superior feel).

But then it wouldn't, really, be a Coen brothers movie -- marked, as they always are, by an omniscient approach, a sardonic attitude and whiplash changes in mood. And, in the end, a subtle but very present belief in a world where, if good does not always triumph and evil is not always punished, at least the distinction between the two still matters.


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