“Burn After Reading” – Susan Granger reviews

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After “No Country for Old Men,” Ethan and Joel Coen are back in comedy mode, so this farcical thriller about dumb, middle-aged misfits caught in capricious CIA paranoia is more reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.”

It all begins in CIA headquarters, where an alcoholic analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is demoted to a low-level State Department position, which surprises his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who immediately plans to divorce him – to the chagrin of her lover, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a feckless federal marshal whose author wife is off on a book tour. Across town, two Hardbodies Fitness Center employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt)– whose emotional IQ barely exceeds their bodily temperature–get their greedy little hands on a computer disc containing a draft of Osborne Cox’s memoirs and attempt to blackmail him.

“Why in God’s name would they think that’s worth anything?” muses Swinton.

It’s not the contrived plot that matters here, it’s the lunatic execution – and the Coens are masters of broadly drawn characters and stylized visuals. Apparently, they asked their actors to ’embrace their inner knucklehead’ to embody their moronic characters. So John Malkovich spews acerbic indignation; Tilda Swinton’s glacial ice queen escaped from Narnia; George Clooney’s unabashedly sex-obsessed; Brad Pitt’s an endearing idiot, prancing in tight Spandex shorts; and Frances McDormand (who is married to Joel Coen) is pathetically relentless in her determination to ‘reinvent’ herself through expensive plastic surgery. In supporting roles, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, JK Simmons and Jeffrey DeMunn are exemplary.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Burn After Reading” is a silly, satirical 7. Or, as a bewildered CIA supervisor so aptly puts it, “Report back to me–when it makes sense.”

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).