Burn After Reading *** (out of ****)

Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, David Rasche
Rating: R (pervasive language, some sexual content and violence)
Running Time: 96 min
Release Date: 9/12/08

After last year's very dark comedy No Country for Old Men, the Coen’s are back with their typical off-beat comedy genre as in The Big Labowski, Fargo, and many others. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a veteran CIA analyst working on the Bosnian region. His happier days were clearly the Cold War but now he is being removed from even this lowly assignment for alcoholism and offered a position the State Department with a lower security clearance. Linda Litzki (Frances McDormand) works at Hard Bodies fitness but her body is anything but hard. She wants four cosmetic surgical procedures that her insurance understandably will not cover. Through some serendipity their lives are to be turn upside down in an improbably series of events.

Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is the link between the characters as womanizing Treasury agent who has never fired his gun in the line of duty. Harry is having an affair with Katie (Tilda Swinton), Osborne’s wife. She is thinking of divorcing Osborne and marring Harry but Harry has other plans. Katie’s plans are put in high gear when she learns that Osborne resigned in anger rather than taking the job at State. She has little hope that Osborne will be successful as a writer. Her attorney advices that she collect all of the financial information on Osborne before filing for divorce. This is why she downloads his personal data from his computer onto a CD.

Chad Feldhiemer (Brad Pitt) works as a trainer at Hard Bodies with Linda where Katie works out. One day he finds a CD with a lot of apparently classified CIA information on it. With Linda desperate for funds to pay for her cosmetic surgery, Chad and Linda so hatch a plot to shake down this “high-level” CIA operative named Osborne Cox whose name and phone number they find on the disk. They eventually make contact with Osborne and present their demands. They arrange a meeting at which they are to trade the CD for money. However, the meeting doesn’t go well when Osborne just demands the disk back, threatens the Chad with the grave legal consequences, and ultimately punches him in the nose.

On the social front Harry meets up with Linda on an online dating service. Soon they are having a fling as well. The activities of all of these people come to the attention of the CIA higher ups when Linda and Chad go to the Russian embassy in an effort to sell the disk. Some of the best comic scenes are the discussions between a CIA agent reporting on these developments had his boss as they try to figure out just what sort of an plot is underway and what to do about it.

The various characters have their own reasons for suspicion based on romantic cheating, private investigators building the divorce case, and national security investigations occurring at the same time. A fair about of the action revolves around the Cox’s townhouse after Katie locks Osborne out. Linda, Chad, and Harry are all on the scene as events spiral toward the conclusion.

Burn After Reading is certainly far form the Coen brothers best but it is a very funny if somewhat complicated film. Brad Pitt puts in an unexpected performance as the screw-ball personal trainer. He may have future in comedy. I totally enjoyed the scenes with J. K. Simmons as the CIA supervisor who just wants to cover up everything. If it has a problem it is just the number of balls it tries to juggle at once. If the true test of a comedy is did it make me laugh, then the answer is yes.


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