Don’t Get Burned by the Coen Bros.’ Latest
Remove the star power from the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” and you are left with a film nearly devoid of substance. But of course, that’s a moot point. The fact is the talented ensemble cast, always a key component of the Coens’ goofy cynicism, overshadows the bland script even though it contains many of the duo’s trademark elements. The film’s trailer promises quirky fun, but there’s little to smile about in this Washington D.C.-based blackmail comedy noir.
Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand are a pair of health club employees who find a disc they are convinced contains spy secrets. The actors are compelling, as usual, but they can’t manage to convince us they are as dumb as they lead on. John Malkovich is the disc’s owner, a recently fired government agent, and is wildly profane and tempestuous but has too few scenes to offer much depth. George Clooney has his moments as the petulant womanizer and his comic timing is as good as ever. But his early scenes are his best; once we get to know him our interest wanes. Tilda Swinton plays a ferociously high-strung doctor-it’s a nice ramped up version of her usual ice queen portrayal-but it’s a one note performance.
The film most closely evokes Wes Anderson’s “Royal Tannenbaums,” which similarly relished dour dysfunction as a means to an end. Critics may not tire of that kind of noir smugness but audiences might not be up for a film with little to root for. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that the film’s lone sympathetic character, played with self-effacing perfection by Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”), will be involved in the film’s blunt violence-which is typical of the Coens’ work.
The scene that earns the biggest laughs involves J.K. Simmons (the “Spider-Man” films) and David Rasche (“Flags of our Fathers”) as deadpan C.I.A. suits who try to make sense of the shenanigans. Unfortunately, it’s the film’s final scene. It’s a good scene to end on, but it makes us wish we could have laughed or been at least a little more interested while getting to that point.
The Coen brothers’ best works-“Fargo,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother Where Are Thou?” and certainly last year’s “No Country For Old Men”-hold up to, and in some cases improve, with repeated viewings. “Burn After Reading” is more interesting than most of tinseltown’s musings these days, but it is not up to the high standard the “Two-headed Director’s” fans have come to expect.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.