Burn After Reading

Director    Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring    George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich
Release    12 SEP (US) 17 OCT (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


19th October 2008

Just nine short months after No Country For Old Men was released to critical acclaim and just eight short months after it bagged the Best Picture Oscar (among others), the Coen brothers present a film that couldn't be more different in tone. There are similarities - like Llewelyn Moss, the central characters here are forced into imperfect circumstances after stealing something they shouldn't have, plus there's another daft haircut to add to the pile.

But where No Country only bore moments of black humour from scenes of heightened drama, Burn After Reading is shamelessly silly from the outset, rivalling even the directors' own The Big Lebowski for sheer, joyous frivolity.

As is their custom, Joel and Ethan Coen have birthed another raft of lovable dolts; a "league of morons" who provide an idiotic and simplified viewpoint of a complicated world. Chief durr-brains are gym instructors Linda Litzke (McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), who discover a CD containing the 'sensitive' memoirs of disgraced former CIA agent Oswald Cox (John Malkovich) in their locker room. Cox, who quit after he was accused of having a drinking problem, is having a bad week: not only is he being blackmailed by two clueless fitness freaks, but his stuck-up wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is sticking it to tough-guy Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) and preparing for a costly divorce.

Consider this a welcome release after the slow-burn tension of No Country For Old Men. The Coens never allow Burn After Reading to lurch into the 'wink wink, nudge nudge' territory inhabited by their last two comedies (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers) but it is a farce, and a damned good one at that. The story is so wonderfully twisted and so convoluted that you can't help but marvel at the insanity of it all: taking in topics as diverse as government security, personal fitness and internet dating, Burn After Reading takes great delight in tying its various deluded characters up in knots and watching the vain struggle in vain. "Report back to me when... uh, when it makes sense," orders JK Simmons's top CIA bod, who's as bemused by proceedings as we are.

Pitt's gym bunny is the only character given free reign to goof off - with a Johnny Suede quiff and a penchant for dancing along to the techno on his iPod, he's never been funnier - but otherwise, Burn After Reading is played with a straight face throughout. The Coens never rely on the conventional crutches of comedy. Here, moments of shocking violence and extreme tragedy lead to bursts of laughter; the directors displaying that great knack of making dark material as funny as hell without ever dropping the serious fa'ade.

There is, underneath Burn After Reading's ridiculous haircuts and cute character quirks, the bare bones of a decent and straight-laced spy thriller. But factor in a cavalcade of hilarious and beautifully nuanced performances - particularly from Richard Jenkins and the ever-reliable McDormand - and you've got a comedy so stupid, it doesn't realise it's a comedy. If intelligence is relative, then ignorance is bliss.

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