Those Coen brothers sure do get around. Years before writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen ventured into the Texas heat and hit Oscar gold with the drama “No Country for Old Men,” they showed their ability to master the art of dark comedy when they traveled to the snowy abyss that is North Dakota — and Minnesota — for the movie “Fargo.” This time, the brothers Coen headed to Washington, D.C. to once again demonstrate their knowledge of this tricky genre with “Burn After Reading.”
In this film, the brothers use their filmmaking genius to fashion a tangled web of humorous, intricate and creative affairs. More amazing though is their ability to pool together such an A-list group of actors to portray this cast of diverse lovers. Unfortunately, they must have used up all their talent on these two tasks because, when the story does not focus on this web, it ends up being rather boring and colorless.
This dark tale begins when alcoholic CIA analyst, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, “Beowulf”) is asked to leave his job because of his drinking problem. When he gets home to tell the story to his cold, bitchy wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”), she has neither time nor care — she is not only busy screwing the womanizing treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney, “Leatherheads”) but also, at the counsel of her divorce attorney, she is secretly burning her husband’s personal computer files onto a CD. Through an unfortunate series of events, this disc ends up at Hardbodies Gym where employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, “The Assassination of Jesse James”) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, “Fargo”) discover it and create a whole new mess of things when they decide to blackmail Cox.
While it is undoubtedly funny, it is the sinister irony and the aftermath of misfortunate events that come as a result of throwing together non-relative subjects like the CIA, physical fitness and Internet dating that give the story its hilarious nature.
The film’s overlying theme of idiocy and the idea that intelligence is relative to the matter at hand also adds a comedic touch. This is best seen in Pitt and Clooney’s characters, who are so oblivious to the big picture that their deficiency eventually leads to an untimely showdown between the two.
What keeps this film from reaching greatness, though, is the Coen brothers’ inability to keep the movie intriguing when it is not trying to be funny. It is understandable that the dramatic storytelling is vital for filling in the necessary gaps to keep the plot moving, but could it maybe be just a little more watchable? The film plays like an EKG monitor with the story flat lining every time there isn’t a comedic pulse.
However, the cast does keep this film alive. To say they are talented would be a severe understatement. Together this group of actors and actresses has been nominated for over 12 Academy Awards, not even including the eight each Coen brother has been nominated for. Luckily, they all live up to the extremely high standard they have established for themselves in this film.
The movie marks a tremendous comeback for Malkovich, who has not had a role worthy of his talents since playing himself, of all people, in “Being John Malkovich.” There is just something about a neurotic, funny-looking bald man going on foul-mouthed tirades in his bathrobe that is downright riotous.
Speaking of Mr. Angelina Jolie, he comes off a little annoying sometimes with his wacky antics and idiotic language, but overall he does a fantastic job of shamelessly portraying his role. A lot of credit goes to him for shredding his pretty boy image and sporting a ridiculous, bleached haircut while he breaks out his dance moves.
In the end, the Coen brothers manage to pull off another successful attempt at the black comedy genre with “Burn After Reading.” An extremely gifted cast gives noteworthy performances, and the dark humor resulting from the film’s obscure themes is enough to keep the audience watching through the story’s pitfalls.
3 1/2 stars out of 5