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Sunday, October 1, 2023


Burn After Reading’ a riotous success

About the only similarity between Burn After Reading and No Country for Old Men – aside from sharing the same directors, of course – is the complete and utter insanity of its main characters.

But where No Country’s Anton Chigurh was dark and menacing, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and Brad Pitt are dumb, narcissistic and hilariously inept as a trio of oddballs in Burn After Reading, the Cohen brothers’ latest and funniest comedy to date.

The film opens with John Malkovich’s portrayal of Osborne Cox, a vulgar, loud-mouthed CIA analyst shown the door because of an apparent drinking problem.

Cox’s solution, along with increasing his drinking, is to write a tell-all memoir, exacting revenge against his former employer. Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is cold and spiteful, not only plotting their divorce but also having an affair with neurotic philanderer Harry (George Clooney).

In an amusing and completely far-fetched series of events, Cox’s memoir ends up in the locker room of HardBodies Gym and is found by Linda and Chad (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), two thickheaded personal trainers who scheme up a cunning-in-their-own-minds plot: to sell the information to the Russians.

But Cox is still an ex-employee of the CIA, and it doesn’t take long for him to catch on, eventually leading to Burn After Reading’s ludicrous, dark and hilarious climax.

As anyone going into Burn After Reading could have predicted, the acting is the film’s greatest strength.

True to form, Clooney is fun and charismatic while McDormand plays her lonely, deeply insecure character with enough cheerfulness to be tragic.

But it’s Pitt who steals the show in his too-limited screen time, delivering the film’s biggest laughs as he hopelessly tries and fails to outsmart the rest of the cast in a doomed secret agent impression.

While minor, the film isn’t without some fault. It takes nearly a half-hour before any meaningful plot developments occur, and some will likely find the dark shifts toward the end to be borderline cruel.

It’s the violent and somewhat bleak conclusion that Cohen fans expect, but audiences new to their work may be in for a surprise.

The plot is purposefully ridiculous, and all of the characters share some slight degree of separation; Osborne is married to Katie, who is having an affair with Harry, who is coincidentally sleeping with Linda, who is best friends with Chad, who is scheming with Linda to blackmail Osborne, unbeknownst to Harry.

If any of that is confusing, it is because the film is delightfully complex.

When a superior CIA officer (played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons) attempts to understand what’s going on, he seems to play the role of the audience, asking, "So we don’t know anything, do we?"

Turns out, we don’t. Burn After Reading has no overarching, take-home message like No Country for Old Men. It simply wants to showcase a stable of insanely talented actors in a funny, outlandish plot about nothing in particular.

And in that respect, Burn After Reading is an absolute must-see.

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