League of Morons
By John Murphy
Posted 9/20/08 at 2:09 AM
After doing the damn near impossible—making last year's damn near perfect No Country For Old Men—who could blame the Coen brothers for blowing off a little steam? Burn After Reading returns to the anarchic comedy of Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, but with diminished returns.
Like the suitcase full of cash in No Country, the plot of Burn After Reading revolves around a McGuffin: a CD containing the memoirs of ex-CIA analyst and current full-time alcoholic, Osborne Cox (only John Malkovich could so naturally inhabit a character thus christened) that ends up in the hands of two bubble-brained employees of Hardbodies Fitness Center, Linda and Chad (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), who naively think they can use the CD to blackmail Cox. Their increasing desperation (Linda wants to bankroll some cosmetic surgeries) is exacerbated by their boundless stupidity, with the slippery-slope result being scenes of sudden carnage to rival anything in No Country. The Coens, who have flirted with misanthropy before, here show such merciless contempt for their hapless heroes that one wonders what compelled them to write a movie about people they would never speak to, much less spend two hours with, unless it was for the pleasure of watching them get axed onscreen.
They have at least invited the cool kids to their party: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and John Malkovich are fierce and fearless in their caricaturing. Early buzz has gone to Pitt as Chad, a fitness instructor whose frosted bouffant rests on an airy foundation. Pitt's performance is like the movie in miniature—spottily hilarious, but too arch and self-satisfied to be convincing, much less involving. The Coens have made midnight-dark comedies before (The Big Lebowski is a modern classic in the genre), but they always tempered their mockery with lovable characters: Nicolas Cage's heavy-lidded hayseed, H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, Jeff Bridges as the abiding Dude in Lebowski, or the great Frances McDormand in Fargo as the sweetest of Midwestern cops, Margie Gunderson. Those films proved the Coens could match talent with tenderness, softening their satire with believably good souls. Unfortunately, Burn After Reading shares queasy qualities with the Coens career nadir, Ladykillers, a cruel comedy with a hollow heart, but endlessly inventive ways of dispatching its loathsome dramatis personae. You leave the theater muttering a Mea Culpa for feeling relieved when another one bites the dust.
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