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'Burn After Reading' Is Entertaining But Not Oscar Worthy

September 15th, 2008 10:05am EDT
Burn After ReadingThe biggest challenge for an Oscar winner, be it a writer, actor, or director, is the first project following the ultimate Hollywood triumph. Expectations are so high and buzz is so great, it can create an almost impossible set of standards to live up to.

This is the case with the Coen brothers' latest release, "Burn After Reading." Though an entertaining enough way to kill two hours on a Saturday afternoon, you can be sure this will not be the film to earn the duo their next little gold man.

The story is of a former CIA agent's (John Malkovich) "top secret files" that fall into the hands of two bumbling gym employees, played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. Thinking they have stumbled upon a gold mine, McDormand and Pitt hatch a harebrained plan to blackmail the fallen agent for some fast cash. However, in typical brothers Coen fashion, a series of crossed paths and misunderstandings make the plan go gravely awry.

Filled with a cast of Hollywood heavyweights, the remaining lead roles being filled by George Clooney and Tilda Swinton, the movie should be a no brainer hit. To some, with its weekend opening at number one and earnings of $18 million, it is. But to the viewer expecting a movie of "No Country for Old Men" caliber, it will be a bit of a let down. Depicted in previews as a laugh-out-loud comedy, the movie does have some great lines - "You're a Morman, next to you everyone has a drinking problem!" - but they come few and far between. The majority of the story is made up of the dark moments the Coens have become known for. Though not as gruesome as "Country," there was some of their trademark violence that came as a bit unexpected.

Burn After Reading



Pitt's performance is by far the highlight of the film because it is so atypical of what audiences have come to expect from him. He breaks away from his usual cool persona to play Chad, a well intentioned but not very smart personal trainer. Despite his leading man looks, his conviction as the film's lovable dork works because of the subtle nuances Pitt injects into the character: Chad is prone to random fits of dance, a love of his bike, and an outward awe at this cool "CIA stuff."

Malkovich, though incredibly well respected and known for his acting prowess, plays his usual angry, dark character, and, in this viewer's opinion, is a bit of a one trick pony. Undoubtedly very good at the one trick, it would be interesting to see him play against type.

McDormand is a natural for the role of Linda Litsky, an aging gym employee desperate to recapture her youth and find her prince charming. A surprise delight comes in the form of J.K. Simmons, best known for his roles in Oz and The Closer. His cameo at the end of the movie as the CIA director is smartly sardonic and one of the best scenes.

Though the film certainly did not earn a place on my top ten list, it is still good enough that I'm not left wishing for two hours of my life back. My biggest complaint is that it just seemed like a bit of an afterthought. Perhaps in their hurry to produce another hit hot on the heels of "Country" they threw something together without the usual deliberate consideration they put into their projects. With big names drawing in the audiences the film will surely be a success but, much like The Big Lebowski post Fargo, it is not the project that will allow their "No Country for Old Men" winning streak to continue.

Review by Marna Palmer
Starpulse contributing writer