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Review

Coens deliver another quality film with ‘Burn after Reading’

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September 18, 2008

Sometimes you’ll see a director who cleaned up in the movie awards season try in vain to make lightning strike twice the next time around. But such is not the case with brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who recently racked up tons of acclaim for “No Country for Old Men” but who preserve their cinematic street cred by pressing onward in making the same crazy flicks they’ve been whipping up for over 20 years. Such a storied tradition continues with their latest and divinely kooky creation, “Burn After Reading.”

Having been ousted from his cushy position as an intelligence analyst thanks to a drinking problem, Osborne (John Malkovich) plans to get back at his treacherous superiors by writing a tell-all memoir. At the same time, his frigid wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is forming early plans to divorce her hubby and run off with U.S. Treasury agent Harry (George Clooney). That means copying his hard drive, but the disk containing such info ends up the hands of two gym employees, body-conscious Linda (Frances McDormand) and terminal doofus Chad (Brad Pitt). Thinking Osborne’s memoirs are valuable government secrets, the pair sets about getting whatever cash they can in exchange for the disk while setting the government off on a frantic quest just to find out what in the world is going on.

What I like most about the Coens is that not only are their films more character-based than anything, they direct them in such a way that you hardly notice the lack of a plot. “Burn After Reading” is all madness and just enough method, a flurry of offbeat personalities swirling about one another. There’s no real point to the film, nor does it wrap things up with a nice little lesson at the end. Some viewers will dig this approach, while others will be like the guy I overheard proclaiming it one of the worst movies he’s ever seen. In any case, you can be assured that the Coens will never leave you bored.

Of course, not one moment of the flick would be as hilarious or involving as it is, were it not for the efforts of one hell of a cast. The characters all inhabit certain archetypes you think you have pinned down, only to show you that they don’t develop how you think they will. In particular, McDormand and Pitt make for a great team, and Pitt gives an especially great performance as a lunkhead who has no clue how over his head he’s in. The only actor who let me down was Swinton, who felt like she was a bit on autopilot. The rather sudden ending even manages to out-abrupt that of “No Country.”

The Coen Brothers have been my favorite filmmakers for years, if only for the fact that I’ve seen all of their films, and I haven’t disliked a single one. Just add “Burn After Reading” to the mantle, a shining example to a kind of energy and creativity that other directors can only hope to imitate in their lifetimes.

MY RATING: Four stars (on the five-star scale)

A.J. Hakari is a student at UW-River Falls.