The Coen Brothers have nailed the violent-comedy segment of the film market.
They've enjoyed huge success over the years, none more so than earlier this year when they picked up best film Oscars for 'No Country for Old Men.' Man, that was a scary film. There's no way you could know what Javier Bardem's character would do next. Was he just a psychopath, or was he actually the devil?
Burn After Reading poses similarly provocative questions. What do we do in the quest for love? Does infidelity have any signficance if everyone is doing it? Who can you trust? Is your lover your friend, your lover, or neither? Are brains necessary for success, or survival, in today's complicated world? Is everyone with a Princeton degree an elite ass?
Each of these questions are answered, in time, within the film. But the film doesn't deliver as completely as you would expect from this team.
Burn has some traditionally strong performances, particularly from Frances McDormand as a bumbling, sad, lonely, and eternally positive Linda Litzke, a gym trainer consumed with obtaining four plastic surgery procedures. John Malkovich is deliciously over the top as the incensed Osborne Cox, a mid-level CIA analyst who quits his job instead of accepting a demotion, and proceeds to become entangled in a truly bizarre plot of intrigue, artifice, adultery, treachery, and stupidity. Brad Pitt as Chad Feldheimer does dumb brilliantly, scene for scene, and you yearn for more of this against type portrayal as a gym trainer who bumbles into infinitely more than he is ever capable of grasping.
And there's also scenery chewers George Clooney and Tilda Swinton as oddball characters, and oddball lovers, caught up in this debauchery and espionage, much to their own surprise.
While Burn falls short as a complete film, it has many individual moments and some decent running gags. Washingtonians will love the dead on take of the city and the Georgetown social scene. Conspiracists will appreciate the focus on the CIA as a haven for intrigue, deception, and incompetence. Gym workers will either be immediately offended, or greatly amused, by their portrayal on screen as incompetent fools driven by greed. And middle-age Ivy League drunks will see themselves, if their eyes can focus on the screen, in Osborne Cox.
Unlike most Coen Brothers films, it takes quite awhile for the bloody body to present itself. And while there's no wood chipper, or human explosion in the desert, the simplicity of the violent deaths in Burn fit with the urbane Washington scenes within the film. But this fit detracts from the perverse nature of sudden and violent death, and reminds us of what makes a Coen Brothers film remarkable, and why this film is not among them.
While the characters each has an eccentric nature, none of the principals is so outlandish as to be completely comic. Pitt's portrayal is refreshing, but his character is less central to the story, than just one part of it. The same with Clooney's non-leading man role as a serial philanderer, and even Swinton's relatively straight portrayal as an uptight pediatrician.
It's only CIA honcho JK Simmons who truly over Coen quirkiness. The CIA man has the film's best lines. Simmons offer the best facial expressions to the seen on camera in some time, as well as a most irreverent attitude towards capital crime, and apparently any other crime, as well.
But the CIA man doesn't come up until we're halfway through, and the story has begun to play out. And wind down. Simmons provides a neat diversion from the story, and closes us out very nicely with an oral report at film's end. But you're left wishing there was more of this performance, or others with similar richness, than the slightly oddball, but ultimately traditional characters featured in Burn.
This film is the classic 'A' for effort but 'C' for delivery. The trailer, on the other hand, is 'A' material all around, and an award of some kind should be delivered immediately to the person responsible for taking a relatively standard film and presenting it as a fast and funny physical comedy of sex and intrigue, instead of the slightly odd Washington thriller that it really is