Friday, 30 January 2009

Movie Review: Burn After Reading (2008)


In a movie in which every character is being mean to every other character, and all the characters are either inept, self-obsessed, or just plain stupid, at least one character needs to be sympathetic enough to make us care amid the oozing awfulness. Burn After Reading fails this test, and it simply disintegrates into a painful spectacle where every attempt at humour or satire falls flat. That the usually brilliant Coen brothers cooked up this turkey just adds bitterness to the bad aftertaste.

Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) are employees at a scuzzy gym managed by Ted (Richard Jenkins), and they stumble upon a CD that appears to contain CIA secrets. The files on the CD belong to Osborne (John Malkovich), a CIA agent on the back-end of his career, and whose marriage to Katie (Tilda Swinton) is imploding. Chad and Linda, in way over their heads, attempt to blackmail Osborne, primarily because Linda wants to finance her plastic surgery.

Katie meanwhile is having an affair with Harry (George Clooney), a Treasury Department agent, who at the same time starts dating Linda, not knowing that Linda is involved in blackmailing his lover's husband. As the blackmail plot unravels, Linda and Chad try to sell the CD to the Russians, and the consequences are bad for everyone, and lethal for a few.

All this rich material for satire on spies, spying, extra-marital affairs and obsession with fitness must have looked hilarious on paper; on the screen, all the targets are missed. The characters come across as failed cartoons drawn with thick crayons. No one appears to act on any idea unless the action is idiotic, and the persistent meanness and dumbness with which all the characters treat each other results in all of them deserving whatever gutter fate the movie chooses to assign.

The high-powered, all-star cast bumbles along not quite knowing if this is the latest Ocean's 11 spin-off or a discarded sub-plot from Syriana. The lack of any character depth or meaningful evolution leaves the acting talent out in the cold. Malkovich as Osborne Cox is given the most to work with, but while his character is entertaining, it remains strictly one-dimensional.

After the Coen's brilliant No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading is a steep drop in form. Any movie in which the Russian embassy spooks are the most sympathetic characters is bound to be in no small amount of trouble.






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