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BURN AFTER READING (director/writer: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki; editor: Roderick Jaynes; music: Carter Burwell; cast: George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), John Malkovich (Osborne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Richard Jenkins (Ted), C.I.A. Superior (J. K. Simmons), Elizabeth Marvel (Sandy Pfarrer), Olek Krupa (Krapotkin), Kevin Sussman (Divorce Lawyer), J.R. Horne (Divorce Lawyer), David Rasche (CIA Officer Palmer), Raul Aranas (Manolo), Jeffrey DeMunn (cosmetic surgeon); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Focus Features; 2008)
“Goofy fluff spy comedy that revolves around a missing CIA memoir.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Funnymen maverick filmmaker brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (“Raising Arizona”/”Fargo”/”The Big Lebowski”) follow their Academy Award-winning No Country For Old Men with this goofy fluff spy comedy that revolves around a missing CIA memoir. It comes with a complexly plotted ludicrous screwball script that has every character depicted in an outrageous cartoonish light and with the brothers having a blast poking fun at America’s obsession with extra-curricular sex, divorce, leading desperate deceitful lives, money woes, Internet dating, physical fitness, spies and cosmetic surgery. The black comedy gets superb comedic performances from its stellar all-star ensemble cast, who keep the farce dead on funny with both physical and deadpan humor.

Grade 3 CIA Balkan analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) receives notice from his immediate boss Palmer that he’s been demoted because he’s an incompetent alcoholic and storms out of the office in a rage. At his Georgetown home he tells his bitchy cold pediatrician wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) that he quit to write his memoir and do consulting work. Meanwhile Katie is having an affair with a lunk-headed philanderer named Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney), a real charmer with a soft job as a federal marshal in the Treasury Department. Harry’s married to successful children’s book writer Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), who leaves for a book tour on the West Coast. Sandy has engaged a sly divorce lawyer, who has Harry tailed. Katie has also, in secret, engaged a sly lawyer, who has her download all of Osborne’s records before the divorce proceedings. Her lawyer’s secretary loses the computer disc at Washington’s Hardbodies Gym, where gym staffers, the witless Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife) and her moronic happy-go-lucky pompadour sporting pal Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), come into its possession when the janitor Manolo turns it over to them. Linda is worried about her aging bod getting too fat and wants to get cosmetic plastic surgery, but her insurance won’t pay for it. Thinking this disc contains top secret spook stuff, the duo decide to try blackmail to collect a reward for it. But Cox doesn’t pay and they take it to the Russians. To complicate things further, the single Linda meets Harry through an Internet dating service and begins sleeping with him. Linda’s droll lovelorn boss Ted (Richard Jenkins), the gym manager, nurses a secret crush on Linda, which she never recognizes, and reluctantly gets involved in her crazy scheme when Chad turns up missing. The unskillful attempts to cash in on the supposedly valuable disc sets in motion a burlesque-like series of incredible misunderstandings that lead to a few murders and a massive unethical coverup by the CIA over a situation that leaves them befuddled but sworn to not do whatever they were doing again.

It might leave you with not much to ponder, but it’s funny and in the Coen brothers own odd misanthropic way they show that they have a good take on our growing national stupidity over possible government secret plots ever since the post-9/11 period.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”