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Pitt, Clooney star in “Burn After Reading”

Shane Steinberg | Monday, September 22, 2008

How do you fit the Coen brothers into a definitive genre?

Are their films merely dark satires interjected with a rush of nail-biting suspense, or gritty shock-and-awe thrillers that leave audiences laughing one moment and gasping in shock the next? It seems a grave injustice to even try and fit the Coen brothers’ films into a genre, for their work is unlike anything else in the film industry.

As they have proven time and time again, from the opening scene in “Blood Simple,” all the way to the closing moments of “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens transcend Hollywood. Their newest film, “Burn After Reading,” a return to their Fargo-like brand of cruel, dark humor with ever-elevating momentum is no different.

The question is: is “Burn After Reading” a comedy veiled as a thriller, or a thriller veiled as a comedy?

To say that “Burn After Reading” features big-name actors is a vast understatement. It is in fact a huge A-list vehicle starring the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Coen brothers favorite Frances McDormand, J.K. Simmons and John Malkovic. The plot, which is meticulously crafted, starts when ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) loses a CD containing his memoirs.

Two dimwitted, over-the-top gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) wind up finding the CD and blackmailing Cox for it. To make matters worse for Cox, his wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with sex-addict Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

From there the film progresses in such a brilliantly inauspicious way, with dark humor painting the corners while the characters’ paths cross and double-cross each other, allowing the film to twist and turn in such a way that it is intricate and engaging, yet understandable to mass audiences.

“Burn After Reading” appears to be the Coen brothers’ most commercial project, which seems prudent following the massive success of their last film, “No Country for Old Men.” It features a well-measured mix of satire, cringe-worthy violence (a Coen trademark) and a plotline that allows for an edge-of-your-seat experience. More importantly, the actors seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, which is a breath of fresh air in today’s film industry. It also doesn’t hurt that the entire cast hits the ball way out of the park, especially John Malkovich and J.K. Simmons, who regrettably didn’t get enough on-screen time.

Although entertaining and well made, “Burn After Reading” is by no means in the upper echelon of the Coens’ works. It’s no “No Country for Old Men,” nor should the two films be compared to each other. The reason being that “Burn After Reading” is, in its purest form, a lighthearted movie with a darkness hidden beneath its surface, while “No Country” and the Coens’ similar movies are dark films with only a hint of daylight hidden beneath the surface. The film is better compared with “The Big Lebowski” or “Fargo,” not measuring up to either. Only because it’s the Coens and not some run-of-the-mill Hollywood director does “Burn After Reading” not shine as a truly great film. Following up one of the greatest films in recent history is no short task, and while the Coens certainly don’t strike pure cinematic gold for the third time in the celebrated careers, they do, however, make for a 97-minute roller coaster ride of a movie that most definitely is worth the price of admission.