Wednesday, October 1, 2008


"No Country for Old Men" directors Joel and Ethan Coen's uneven, overwrought, misanthropic comedy of errors "Burn After Reading" (* out of ****) should have been burned after they made it. Remember, the Coen Brothers won the 2008 Best Picture Oscar for their inspired but violent account of an indestructible hit-man who methodically tracked down his victims and killed them without a qualm. As their first feature since "No Country for Old Men, "Burn After Reading" radiates barely a modicum of the customary Coen luminosity. The fourteenth movie that the two brothers have helmed together struggles to be as side-splitting as either "The Big Lebowski" or "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou." Instead, this forgettable farce turns out to be as mirthless as two previous Coen misfires "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Intolerable Cruelty." "Burn After Reading" opens like a Tom Clancy techno-thriller. An orbiting spy satellite camera zooms into the Chesapeake Bay area on the East Coast, penetrates the cloud cover and pinpoints C.I.A. Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A bow-tied, bald-headed, Princeton-educated, career C.I.A. analyst, Osborne 'Ozzie' Cox (John Malkovich of "Being John Malkovich"), explodes with rage when his boss (David Rasche of "An Innocent Man") relieves him of his duties on the Balkans desk and shuffles him off to a lower security grade State Department post. The volatile Cox spews profanity when his colleagues attribute his inferior job performance to alcoholism. Cox quits the C.I.A. rather than being reassigned. As he storms out of the room, he vows to pen a tell-all memoir. Later, every time we see Ozzie working on his memoirs, he clutches a drink in his fist.

The scene shifts to Hardbodies Fitness Center. Personal trainer Linda Litzke (Oscar-winning Frances McDormand of "Fargo") plans to have a number of surgical cosmetic procedures performed on her flabby physique. "I have gone as far as I can with this body," she whines to her plastic surgeon. She is looking for somebody to date on the Internet and she hates her appearance. When her company insurance refuses to cover these elective operations, Linda blows a gasket. Although she isn't pleased with herself, her Hardbodies boss Ted (Richard Jenkins of "Step Brothers") drools whenever he is around her. Linda calls him her friend and then all but ignores him. Another Hardbodies trainer, bimbo-brained Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt of "Ocean's Twelve") who wears his iPod like jewelry, discovers an anonymous computer disc left in the ladies locker room that contains Ozzie's C.I.A. secrets. Against Ted's wishes, Linda and Chad blackmail Ozzie for $50-thousand dollars so Linda can pay for her four procedures. Meanwhile, Ozzie's ice princess of a wife Katie (Oscar winning Tilda Swinton of "Michael Clayton") indulges in an extramarital fling with a married but philandering U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (a bearded George Clooney of "Leatherheads") who constructs mechanical sex machines in his spare time. Pfarrer is married to a successful children's author, Sally (Elizabeth Marvel), who hates the dinner parties that Harry takes her to at Katie's house. Not surprisingly, Ozzie refuses to pay Linda and Chad a dime so Linda approaches officials in the Russian Embassy. Meanwhile, Katie locks Ozzie out of their house and begins divorce proceedings.

Ensemble piece that it is, "Burn After Reading" meanders from one quirky character's complications to another in a haphazard manner. The Coen's erratic script for this farcical but violent yarn about a group of largely unsavory dimwits that make moronic fools of themselves seethes with irony. Surprisingly, the Coens seem to have taken leave of their comic senses because their sophisticated humor falls flat on its face. Moreover, in their efforts to drum up laughs, co-stars Brad Pitt and George Clooney deliver performances that verge on epilepsy. Tilda Swinton is particularly rude and hostile as a pediatrician with the bedside manner of a crocodile. She has no problem bossing around either Ozzie or Harry, but she cannot get a child to take its medicine. Pathetic, selfish, delusional cretins populate "Burn After Reading" and they refuse to accept reality. For example, Linda believes that if you think positive thoughts that positive things will happen. Indeed, this eclectic gallery of characters qualifies more as caricatures. Since we feel little sympathy toward them, the trials and tribulations that they endure to attain their goals rarely prompts anything more than a smirk or two.

Ultimately, "Burn After Reading" devotes more time to infidelity rather than of espionage. This hyperactive but less-than-hilarious hokum qualifies as a failure on multiple levels. Ham-fisted performances, poor plotting, labored jokes, and sudden lapses of violence spoil what might have been a neat little bit of nothing.

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