Burn After Reading – 5 stars

The Coen Brothers have taken many stabs at comedy, with varying results. On the plus side, Raising Arizona is a wild, human cartoon, with performances by Holly Hunter and Nick Cage approximating Claymation; Intolerable Cruelty an amusing facsimile of a screwball comedy; and The Big Lebowski a whimsical, goofy trip. The Ladykillers however, was a dud, The Hudsucker Proxy an ornate mess, and A Serious Man too self-loathing to support interest, much less humor.

The best of the bunch, by far, is 2008’s Burn After Reading, a crisp, tight ensemble that melds madcap and cloak-and-dagger. The story is too elaborate to capsule, but the tale – intersecting vanity, intrigue, the CIA and personal fitness – is almost besides the point. The actors could have let the serpentine twists carry the day, but to a person, they invest silly characters with pathos and even gravitas.  George Clooney’s philandering everyman goes from loathsome to sympathetic and is almost admirable in his pathological ardor. John Malkovich’s rage-filled civil servant stands in for all us “surrounded by idiots”, especially when we are introduced to his brittle, scheming, focused wife (Tilda Swinton). Frances McDormand’s novice blackmailer is annoyingly hilarious yet almost tragic in her desperate fights for companionship and against the ravages of time. And Brad Pitt, as her dim but lovable accomplice, should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. There is not a scene he doesn’t steal, and the one where he must contend with a maniacal Malkovich is one for the ages.

“You think that’s a Schwinn.”



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