'Burn After Reading'

Brad Pitt's so famous he makes the perfect doofus.

By Steve Burgess 12 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews film and culture for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Pitt: at home among nuts and dolts.

The entity known to Hollywood as the Coen Brothers is a two-headed beast. Its noir-ish head now sated with a bellyful of Oscars, the beast turns once more to comedy. Burn After Reading will not provide the filmic siblings with the Oscarful rewards earned by last year's No Country For Old Men . But it may start as many arguments over its merits. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen do have a way of dividing public opinion.

Take this exchange, overheard after a recent preview screening: "It was just like the rest of their films," she said, "It didn't have an ending."

"What are you talking about?" he shot back. "I thought it was brilliant."

Burn After Reading will probably inspire a lot of that. The Coens bring not peace but a sword. And unlike a Will Ferrell flick, you can't really judge Burn After Reading with a Laff-o-Meter. The Coens tend to favour a unified-field theory of comedy, with the emphasis on situation and character rather than gags. As usual they are assisted by a top-rate cast, possibly their most stellar yet. This being Coen country, they do not portray a loveable bunch.

Violently awry, wryly

To summarize: George Clooney is a sleazebag, Brad Pitt a dolt, Frances McDormand a flake, John Malkovich a bitter drunk, Tilda Swinton a nasty dentist. J.K. Simmons is great as a CIA chief with an admirably practical approach to problem solving. Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins plays perhaps the only truly decent character in the film --- Ted the fitness club manager. But then, Ted isn't very important.

Malkovich is a dismissed CIA analyst who determines to write a memoir. A copy of this finds its way into the hands of fitness club employees Pitt and McDormand, who decide to leverage it for cash. Clooney, looking appropriately louche, is a Treasury Department employee having an affair with Malkovich's disenchanted wife (Swinton), while simultaneously trolling the Internet for more action with romantics like, for example, McDormand. Complications ensue. Violence, too.

Stripped to its essentials, this one could be filed beside the Coen's biggest crowd-pleaser, Fargo : unhappy domestic situations and small-time criminal enterprises go violently awry in blackly humorous fashion. But the two movies, while both recognizably Coen, feel completely different. Burn After Reading is strictly an observational comedy, and as such makes virtually no attempt to create empathy. These people are here to be snickered at from a safe distance.

Pitt will get plenty of yuks with Chad, his doofus fitness instructor. At this point, Pitt's celebrity actually augments his comedic performances -- people see the world's most famous hunky dude willingly making a fool of himself and give him extra kudos for it. As for Clooney, he goes even further, and it is a mark of his talent that people probably won't give him as much credit. He's great -- an oily, charming, sleazy, pathetic man-child. It's no wonder the Coens have made Clooney their go-to guy for comic leads.

Cynic cinema

Some will emerge from Burn After Reading supporting the "It was brilliant" argument. Others will be left with a sour taste. A movie as cynical as this one is helped if some great, overarching point is being made, but the Coens love to go the opposite way. As Simmons' CIA chief gives the film's final summation, the Coens fairly celebrate the fact that everything we've watched amounts to nothing. Thanks for coming, folks. Hope you enjoyed the ride, because you sure as hell weren't going anywhere.

You can say the same thing about a lot of films -- the Coens just like to rub your nose in it. Burn After Reading offers a lot for Coen Brothers fans to appreciate. But with its Grinchy little heart, this movie is not likely to win yours.

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