When the Coen Brothers decide to go on a diet, the dudes abide. “Burn After Reading” is a lean one – 96 featherweight minutes, many spent with characters who lie, cheat, steal, kill and obsess over fitness and physical beauty. And yet they are as likable a set of folks as you’ll find east of Brainerd. (You betcha!)
Lonely. Caring. Loving. Angry. Bitter. Sexy. Funny. Sad. Warm. For a no-sweat film created to showcase A-list actors doing zany stunts, “Burn After Reading” offers surprising three-dimensional depth. Let’s just say we get to know these people a heck of a lot better than anyone in “No Country for Old Men.”
It’s not likely to become a must-quote classic with its own annual festival, like “The Big Lebowski,” or a master class comedy crime thriller like “Fargo,” although “Burn” has pieces of both. In the pantheon of Coen films it belongs on the comedy rung below “Raising Arizona” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (which I value most for its look and sound), but well above “Intolerable Cruelty” and the abominable “The Ladykillers.” (“Burn” shares the divorce theme with “Intolerable,” but divorce and Clooney are the only shared characteristics there.)
Linda Lizke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) work at Hardbodies Gym in the DC area. She’s a desperately chipper single woman of a certain age trying to raise money for four plastic surgeries. He’s a dim bulb of an exercise nut with a slack jaw and Ryan Seacrest hair.
She ends up the special lady friend of married lothario Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who likes to go for runs after afternoon delight. He’s also seeing Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), the upper-crust wife of equally snooty Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) – a CIA analyst recently downgraded due to “a drinking problem,” who likes to work out on his boat to “Gilad’s Bodies in Motion.”
After losing his job, Osborne decides to write his memoirs. The memoirs end up saved on a disc and the disc ends up with Hardbodies staffer Manolo (Raul Aranas), who finds them “just lying there” in the ladies room. Chad gets the disc and sees an opportunity to play spy. Linda sees an opportunity to blackmail Osborne for her surgery money. Things go awry – even unexpectedly awry in a few shocking scenes – but no matter where the thriller/comedy goes, it stays a classic Coen product. Albeit lite.
There’s the language, for one thing, which is one reason for the R rating. As in past scripts, especially “Lebowski,” there’s a repetitive cadence to the speech (“there’s no way, there’s no F–KING way…”). There’s the usual charmingly over-the-top doofuses. There’s some violence – but in an offhand we-couldn’t-help-ourselves way. Blood, simple. Not “Blood Simple.” There’s the disinterest in providing a tidy, happy ending. And there’s the fact that they wrote the script as well as directing, producing and editing – their usual MO, only temporarily discarded to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s book, “No Country For Old Men.”
But there’s something that felt a little less than organic about “Burn After Reading.” After watching the film I read a USA Today interview with the Coens where they said the plot started with the cast, thinking about what would be fun to see from them.
So, as noted in the article, they tailored the roles to the actors as opposed to casting for specific characters. John Malkovich as a human explosion. Clooney as a skeezy cheater who secretly loves his wife (and makes the most interesting thing for her in his spare time…). Tilda Swinton as a cold, snooty British bi—h — more alive here than her Oscar-winning turn in “Michael Clayton.”
McDormand, a Coen stalwart married to Joel, is winningly sly, insecure, pushy and lonely. She and Pitt are a wonderful BFF team. Pitt plays the most effusive, ebullient character since his electric turn in “12 Monkeys.” He lights up the screen. Watching him reminded me why this guy became such a hit – it wasn’t just those abs in “Thelma and Louise” (although they helped). Between “Monkeys,” “Fight Club,” “Snatch” and that stoner cameo in “True Romance,” this is a guy with genuine charisma, not just tabloid charisma.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Richard Jenkins (part of my “Six Feet Under” family) as sweet, wonderful Ted, Linda and Chad’s manager at Hardbodies. He may be to “Burn” what Donny was to “Lebowski.” (With Manolo as the Jesus.)
There’s a reason the Coens are so valued – and have been since “Blood Simple” in 1984. Great writing, clean visual style, the sense to keep hiring Carter Burwell to do the score, and an unfailing eye for talent. Once they latch on to someone – McDormand, Clooney … usually John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman – they keep them around and give them more good parts to work with. They’ve had a few missteps – “Ladkillers” and, for me, “The Hudsucker Proxy” – but for what’s going on 25 years they’ve been a trusted brand name for critical, if not always commercial, success.
So I give them the lion’s share of credit for the “Burn” cast being so spot-on. The tone, the delivery, the expressions. All over-the-top, all together. They picked the best and got the best. Funny that they did it for such a thin story, but when they put their Little Coen Urban Achievers to work, they really tie the film together. And proud we are of all of them. – (seacoastonline)