Acting a highlight in 'Burn'

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2008

Maybe it was because one of the pre-feature trailers was for the upcoming Ridley Scott CIA thriller, "Body of Lies," but the opening of the new Coen brothers' film sure felt like it was mimicking Mr. Scott's style and genre. The first shot starts us in outer space, looking down upon the planet. Quickly we zoom in through the atmosphere, as if using Google Earth, down into the hallways of the CIA. Ridley Scott-esque subtitles inform us that's exactly where we are.

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Courtesy Of Mike Zoss Productions
Courtesy Of Mike Zoss Productions

And that, roughly, is where any semblance of a Ridley Scott spy thriller disappears.

"Burn After Reading" is the Coen brothers' take on the spy-thriller genre. So, take a Ridley Scott version, then throw in some "Zoolander" and sprinkle a little bit of "Fargo," and you are somewhere in the vicinity of the Coen brothers. The collection of characters in "Burn After Reading," which Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) correctly refers to as a "league of morons," exhibits an intelligence level on par with Derek Zoolander. Still, this is a Coen brother comedy, so there is no Will Ferrell and there is certainly no contrived happily ever after. Instead, like the good folks in "Fargo," the league of morons in "Burn After Reading" mostly winds up in the proverbial wood chipper.

Attempting to coherently explain the plot of a Coen brothers flick is often the very definition of futile. Instead, let's just paint the broader picture, shall we? "Burn After Reading" is set in the D.C. area, where all the characters live. Things are rarely what they seem and soon everyone is either sleeping with one another or killing each other.

Hey, I said it was futile - and I only have 600 words. And those words are more valuably spent talking about the highlights of "Burn After Reading": the acting. Brad Pitt, with shades of his psychopath from "12 Monkeys," is charmingly innocent, stupid and funny. George Clooney is spot-on as a paranoid sex addict. Malkovich spews angry curse words better than anyone this side of Vince Vaughn.

What interests the Coen brothers for the most part, I suspect, isn't the big puzzle that eventually finds a place for each character in its storyline. Rather, they seem to be fascinated with watching very simple characters get in way over their respective heads, get deeper and deeper into inescapable situations, and finally, more often than not, meet an untimely demise.

Chad (Pitt), a buffoon who seems to lack a mean bone in his entire body, gets shot in the face. Ted (Richard Jenkins), painfully in love with the oblivious Linda, gets shot and then bludgeoned to death on the sidewalk. Osborne - the same Osborne who shoots and bludgeons Ted to death - doesn't live, either. And why does this all happen?

Again, it'd be futile to try and explain. But the Coen brothers are making fun of just about everything they can. Marriage? A joke. Everyone's cheating on everyone else while simultaneously building a divorce case. Espionage? Ha! The film's funniest moments are actually the brief encounters between two CIA men (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons) at their headquarters. As one man tries to keep his boss informed of the goings on, all that is clear is that nobody knows what the hell is going on.

In the end, "Burn After Reading" is largely a "cluster-f*#k," to steal a word from Simmons' character. What the Coen brothers probably do better than anyone else, though, is weave these various situations into a deceptively coherent tale.

And what do you learn from Coen brothers' comedy? Did I already mention the word futile?

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