Film Reviews

BURN AFTER READING

By • Sep 15th, 2008 •

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If the last third of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and Tommy Lee Jones’ senseless monologue-to-nowhere confused you, you can comfortably sit through BURN AFTER READING without even attempting to tie the pieces together.

BURN AFTER READIN brings the audience into the simmering second-tier fantasy we all have (the first is we have superpowers) – what if you were a bystander and Jason Bourne needed you to help him get out of the country?

What if you were walking on 37th and R Street NW in Washington, DC and saw Aldrich Ames putting chalk marks on a mailbox? You know he’s making a “dead drop”. You’ve read David Morrell. You know all about tradecraft. Think it’s highly improbable? The number of marks on the Ames mailbox prompted some local residents to later admit that they did speculate that it was used by spies.

Do you intercept the drop? Do you take it to the Russians? The Chinese? They’ll pay big time, right? Do you hold it ransom in exchange for world peace? How about in exchange for plastic surgery?

But the CIA didn’t have a clue, even though Ames was driving a new Jaguar to work that cost more than his annual salary. When he told them he was selling his grandmother’s junk on eBay, they believed him!

The Coen Brothers know exactly what Americans will sell out their country for! Plastic surgery! It makes sense to me. It is the harbinger of what every American wants and will get no matter what it takes. The hell with the mortgage. So what if you have to declare bankruptcy? You are entitled to a full body makeover. It’s being proposed as an amendment to our Constitution.

At least that is what Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) wants. She is going to get a complete plastic surgery re-do. It doesn’t phase her that her meager salary as an athletic club employee at Hardbodies will barely pay for the doctor’s consultation.

As a CIA department head, the great J.K. Simmons (don’t you love him in everything he does?) is the voice of reason, making the hurly-burly plot come together with his Xanax-induced morality. He’s not the only one in BURN AFTER READING who lives by his own rules of conduct.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who has out-lived his usefulness and he’s a mean drunk. Quitting instead of getting fired, he decides he’ll write his memoirs. His take-no-prisoners wife, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), is not amused. She is having an affair with their friend, federal marshall Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). He’s a philanderer who trolls internet dating sites for afternoon assignations while his wife is busy on her book tour and his mistress is at work. Ball-buster Katie plans on divorcing Osbourne and marrying Harry. It is what she wants.

As the comedy of errors take off, Osbourne’s memoir-in-progress CD is found on the floor of the woman’s dressing room at Hardbodies. Linda’s buddy, trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), has a plan. Blackmail the CIA agent for the return of the sensitive material they think is on the CD. And this is when the trailer moment confrontation between Osbourne and Chad takes place.

I laughed throughout BURN AFTER READING at the clever dialogue, the sloppy plot, the unrealistic paranoia, and the fearlessness of the dumb characters. Living in D.C. must give everyone the hopeful chance of spotting the distinctively colored towel sometimes hanging from a balcony, or the sudden appearance of a potted plant on a window-sill. Every spy wannabe knows the dead drop should be obvious yet totally ordinary.

All the actors know that this time it’s about fun and they all go full-throttle. Especially ripe are Clooney and Swinton. This is their second pairing and they should keep working together. Swinton’s distain for Clooney and her obvious unawareness of his glamour makes her a perfect foil. She never notices his charm. It doesn’t work on her and that’s what makes it so endearing.

Pitt is so wonderful, you’re going to forget his THELMA AND LOUISE launch, his slacker moment in TRUE ROMANCE and even forgive him that silly MEET JOE BLACK misstep. Yet for most of us, he’ll always be Tyler Durden.

As for McDormand, her husband loves her and serves her talents well. And if the ending comes as a surprise, it’s fluid reality (and Tommy Lee Jones will make sense of it).

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