The Coen brothers strike again with their ironic wit and humanistic characters intact for the new film Burn After Reading. A darkly comedic parable about greed and fear, Burn traces five oddball characters as they become entangled with each other in pursuit of owning money, sex and relationships. The movie sets up the story of an ex-government analyst (John Malkovich)writing his uncensored memoirs until a disc of it falls into the hands of two fitness club employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). The two fit clubbers try to extort money from the analyst in return for the disc. In the meantime, a philandering treasury department agent (George Clooney) sleeps with many women including the ex-analyst's wife (Tilda Swinton). And from there, things become wildly unpredictable and interesting.
Burn is a character driven film with some truly memorable performances. Most of the actors do variations on role types they've done before - Malkovich is hyper intelligent and condescending, McDormand is midwest purity (like in the Coen's Fargo) and Clooney is a wide eyed simpleton masked by an ingratiating demeanor (like in the Coen's O Brother Where Art Thou). Swinton I'm not familiar with, but she delivers a first rate ice queen. The twist for these actors is portraying these people as venal and a bit sad but still retaining relatibility and likability. Burn After Reading hinges on the success of these performances because it's a character driven movie, directed by the Coens these actors shine.
But in terms of acting, the movie belongs to Brad Pitt. Which surprised me because I haven't always found Pitt convincing in previous movies. In Burn, Pitt plays the role of an empty headed teenage jock trapped in the body of a thirty year old perfectly. His snappy delivery and comedic timing is on target and commands attention whenever he's on screen.
With the actors in place, the Coens allow for time to let the audience to get to know the characters. Most of the humor is based on knowing these people so it takes a moment for things to really get rolling. But once it does, the Coens mix farce with harsh reality to create a world that is by turns funny and intense. There are moments that are as shockingly chilling as they are humorous at the same time.
Burn After Reading is a good film that's amusingly funny yet has some depth to the storytelling. It won't stand with other Coen brothers films as modern classics (Fargo, The Big Lebowski or No Country for Old Men) but is fascinating and entertaining.
Burn After Reading trailer