Sunday, September 28, 2008

'Burn' a hit for Coen brothers

*** out of ****

What happens when an amateur duo of dim-witted doofuses beats the head honchos of the CIA at their own game? The answer is found in "Burn After Reading," a smart film about not so smart people.

Hot off of their success from four-time Academy Award winner (including Best Picture) "No Country for Old Men," brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, do a 360 with their new absurd spoof comedy. After variable success in the genre with hits ("The Big Lebowski") and misses ("Intolerable Cruelty"), "Burn" is without a doubt a hit.

Part of an all-star cast, John Malkovich stars as the angry, foul-mouthed CIA analyst Osborne Cox. The movie begins with Cox getting fired for having a drinking problem, angrily retorting to his colleague, "You're a Mormon! Next to you, everyone's got a drinking problem."

With his newfound spare time, spent mostly drinking and lounging, he decides to write his memoir, to the indifference of his icy wife (Tilda Swinton).

The plot gains traction when a disk containing parts of Osborne's memoir is somehow left on the locker room floor at a gym named Hardbodies. Mistakenly taken as CIA secret information, gym employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who is hankering for a plastic surgery makeover and the fitness-obsessed Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), see it as an opportunity for easy money.

As the two carry out their half-baked blackmail scheme, Linda starts to date a married Treasury Department employee, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who is having an affair with Mrs. Cox. As all of their lives converge, the Coens create the perfect set up for chaos, murder and hilarity.

Instead of an all-out parody, this film is more of a briskly-paced CIA comedy caper -- Joel and Ethan take the typical craziness out of a spy movie and push it to the max with their imaginative screenplay.

Playing for laughs, not awards, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand are still at the top of their games and give some of the most entertaining performances of the year.

J.K. Simmons deserves a mention as the baffled CIA superior who tries to follow the blackmail-murder-love triangle situation. At the end of the film he asks, "So, what did we learn?" The answer is "nothing."

However, like a good episode of "Seinfeld," learning much about nothing is rewarding even on its own, as long as it keeps us laughing.

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