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Thursday, January 15, 2009


Welcome return to quirky, dark comedy for writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. (Review by Billy Suter, courtesy of The Mercury)

The opening film of the 2008 Venice Film Festival, Burn After Reading marks a welcome return to quirky, dark comedy for writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who earned a new respectability as Oscar-winners for No Country For Old Men, which they reportedly co-wrote simultaneously with this new release.

Tagged as a smart film about stupid people, Burn After Reading revolves around selfish, conniving, despairing folk ensnared in situations arising from misunderstandings. It’s a delightfully loopy romp.

It’s a convoluted caper with colourful characters brilliantly realised by a top ensemble cast, and crowned with dazzling performances from a hyperactive, goofy, gum-chewing, rave-dancing Brad Pitt (with hair from hell), and the unfailingly wonderful Frances McDormand, whose performance has been nominated for a Golden Globe, as has the film itself.

Sort of spy caper-meets sex farce, the film opens with the superb John Malkovich as Ozzy, a severely frazzled CIA agent who resigns instead of accepting a demotion linked to a booze problem. This prompts him to stew at home and write memoirs that will reveal all about his spying days – at a time when his uptight wife (a nicely icy Tilda Swinton) is meeting for regular rumpy-pumpy with a married federal marshall agent (George Clooney), who has a thing for quality flooring, regular romantic dalliances arranged via the internet and the creation of a clunky contraption designed for novel use of a certain sex toy.

When a computer disk containing Ozzy’s memoir notes winds up on the floor of a gym and is found by airhead personal trainer Chip (Pitt), the plot shifts up a gear.

Chip and fellow gym employee Linda (McDormand) decide to blackmail Ozzy – Chip for the hell of it and a few dollars, Linda to get enough for the plastic surgery she’s long craved. But one thing leads to another, complications arise in unexpected areas, cheaters and schemers collide. And the story twists and tumbles, perhaps a little too slowly at times, to a climactic final reel that leaves some folks dead and others scratching their heads to try to figure out just what the heck is going on.

Deceit, greed, vanity, ignorance, lust ... all get a light finger-wag during a story that features some fine character acting from a cast that includes an understated Richard Jenkins as gym manager Ted, a former man of the cloth who has a crush on Linda. Also of note in smaller roles are K Simmons as the CIA bigwig who is dazed and confused by the outlandish events unfolding, relayed to him by an earnest underling (an excellent David Rasche).

It may not be the Coen brothers best film, not by a long chalk, but Burn After Reading has enough spark to light up the new year when it come to great matinee entertainment. See it – it’s alone worth the ticket price for Pitt and McDormand’s terrific turns! Rating 8/10 - Billy Suter