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Burn After Reading (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 96 Minutes.

One thing that Joel and Ethan Coen know is how to make movies about dumb people, “Fargo” (1996) being the prime example. This movie is inundated with dumb people. Everybody’s dumb!

The film starts with Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) being downgraded by the CIA, which ticks him off. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) is less than sympathetic. She is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a pretty dumb Federal Marshall, who is also married to someone else. Osborne starts to write his memoirs, but somehow the CD containing what he’s written is left at an exercise club where it’s found by a health club supervisor, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). She conspires with one of her trainers, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who is, to put it charitably, IQ-challenged, to try to sell it to the Russians because she needs money for some cosmetic surgery.

Every one of these characters is extraordinarily dumb. The world of the Coens is overflowing with characters like these who go blithely along, never realizing how monumentally stupid they are.

This is actually a pretty funny movie. Brad Pitt doesn’t appear as the hunk he usually is, but as an airhead with mp3 buds constantly in his ears, bopping to the beat of his unheard drummer. Frances McDormand throws all caution to the wind as she has the single-minded pursuit of changing her body and reaches a really stupid solution to her problem. Malkovich, who looks like the twin brother of JK Simmons (who plays one of the two people who isn't completely off his rocker, a CIA superior of no name who still goes along with all the goofy solutions of his subordinates; the other relatively normal person is Ted, the boss of Katie and Chad, effectively played by Richard Jenkins), goes off half-cocked after he’s demoted.

Linda wants a man, which is why she wants to carve up her body to look better. She never even considers that Ted might be the guy for her, despite the adoring look he gets whenever he's in her presence.

Katie Cox is the only character I didn’t buy. She’s having a hot affair with Pfarrer, but it’s difficult to understand why Pfarrer would be attracted to her. She’s physically unattractive and has a horrible dominating personality. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to spend any time with her anywhere, much less in bed. But maybe that goes to the core of Pfarrer’s character because he goes after Linda, too, and she’s no femme fatale.

All the characters are bizarre and funny, but perhaps none more memorable than J. R. Horne, who plays a divorce lawyer. Horne captures the smarmy hypocrisy of the profession in his one minute onscreen. I know it’s not possible, but I’d give him a nomination for best supporting actor, so unerring is his depiction.

All in all, this is an enjoyable film that lets you come out of it no wiser, but probably in better spirits than when you started.

September 10, 2008