2008-09-19 / Columnists


Burn After Reading' - Coen's Crazy CIA Comedy
Review By Robert Snyder

Beware James Bond. The Coens are coming. In fact, they've come.

Fresh from winning four major Oscars for "No Country for Old Men" filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan are back with "Burn After Reading." The crazy-quilt comedy, involving the C.I.A., an exercise gym, adultery (a lot of adultery), Internet dating and the silly soap opera underside of espionage in our nation's Capitol.

Not the dark American epic that is "No Country," "Burn" is the Coens in their slapstick "Raising Arizona" mood. What it does share with the Oscar winner and most other Coen classics ("Fargo," "Blood Simple," included) is violence, quick and graphic. Life is cheap in a Coen film. It doesn't matter how high the Hollywood star stature of an actor. Death awaits. Somehow it fits into the comedy.

The original storyline starts with veteran C.I.A. analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) getting demoted for boozing. Enraged, he resigns and tells his stuck-up wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), that his retribution is to write a tell-all memoir. Katie could care less, because she's planning to divorce him and marry federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). While Harry tells her he's in a loveless marriage, what she doesn't know is that he is a serial adulterer and chronic sexoholic.

Thrown into the mess are a couple of dimwits, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), co-workers at the Hard Bodies Gym. Obsessed with "reinventing" herself, Linda wants four plastic surgical procedures, but can't possibly pay for them. Chad finds Cox's tell-all memoir on a computer disk left at the gym and figures it means big reward money. For Linda, it's the solution to her surgical problem.

Complications increase when Linda launches an Internet date with Harry, now living at now separated Katie's home, while his wife, who is a Children's author, Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), is away on a book tour.

The Russian Embassy becomes involved, when Linda tries to entice them with the disk. Soon spies are everywhere, along with misunderstandings and murder.

Amazingly, the Coens keep the convolutions coherent, helped by the story being explained to a skeptical, but bemused C.I.A. superior (J.K. Simmons).

For Coens fans, "Burn After Reading" is a must. Others may want to go simply to see great actors having a bloody good time.

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