BURN AFTER READING (Rated R)
The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are the merry pranksters of the cinematic world, having churned out such offbeat and funny films as “Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo.” They are capable of more serious work, including last year’s award-winning “No Country for Old Men.”
As the writers, directors and producers of “Burn After Reading,” the Coens have returned to the comfort zone of their comedic DNA, which includes wild strains of satire, sex farce and screwball comedy. “Burn After Reading” burns the spy world in ways that are broadly stamped with the Coen trademark of goofiness.
No one, least of all the Coens, would possibly argue that “Burn After Reading” is a brilliantly artistic cinematic achievement worthy of the A-list actors who are called upon to act as shockingly dumb people. The film is something of a lark, a full-blown prank loaded with endless shenanigans.
At the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Virginia, analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) arrives for a top-secret meeting, only to discover that his bosses want to demote him to a meaningless job at another government agency because they recognize he has a drinking problem. The volatile Osborne doesn’t take the news particularly well and decides to resign from government service.
Meanwhile, Osborne’s ice queen wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), a medical doctor, is thoroughly dismayed that Osborne will be working on his memoirs at their Georgetown home, possibly because this may interfere with Katie’s illicit affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married federal marshal. This turn of events accelerates her desire to divorce Osborne so that she can take up with Harry.
For his part, Harry is trying to decide whether he should divorce his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), a successful author of children’s books, even though he is building her a special, if oddly unorthodox, birthday gift in his basement workshop.
Elsewhere in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, and seemingly worlds apart, Hardbodies Fitness Center gym worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is obsessed with obtaining extensive cosmetic surgeries, going so far as to ask her boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) for large salary advances.
Ignoring the fact that the sad-eyed, wistful Ted is wild about her, Linda trolls the Internet dating services, which coincidentally happens to be one of Harry’s favorite things to do. Naturally, Linda and Harry become acquainted through an online connection, and are soon fitfully engaged in several liaisons.
Fixated on her life plan for surgical enhancements, Linda confides her mission to fellow gym worker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a gum-chewing, Gatorade-swilling, iPod-addicted bubble-brain. Delightfully idiotic, Chad is the type of numb skull who easily falls for Linda’s plan to take advantage of a computer disc that just happens to contain the memoirs of the former CIA analyst that seemingly exposes state secrets.
Ingenious but clueless, Linda and Chad presume they can blackmail the sarcastic, explosive Osborne to pay for the return of the disc. His hot-tempered, incendiary demeanor causes the nitwit duo to try instead to peddle the CIA secrets to the Russians.
As the plot unfolds, the worlds of physical fitness and the CIA, along with Internet dating, intersect and collide in ways that are just too weird for words. All the characters are middle-aged and undergoing professional, personal and sexual crises that touch on matters of national security. Aside from Osborne’s sarcastic brilliance, all the others are basically sad, moronic characters mixed up in situations that easily get out of hand.
Brad Pitt is hilarious as the clueless, idiotic conspirator. Yet, the funniest scenes may belong to JK Simmons and David Rasche, seen too briefly as the CIA bosses trying without any luck to make sense of what is transpiring with the amateur effort to peddle secrets to the Russians.
Not likely to be considered in the class of more superior comedies from the Coen brothers, “Burn After Reading” is nevertheless a subversively comedic spy thriller. As the plot deepens and thickens, the Coens unload more shocks and surprises that are alternately clever, amusing and outright funny. The first-rate cast helps immensely to make this film fun to watch.
DVD RELEASE UPDATE
Trekkies everywhere may want to take notice of the DVD release of “Star Trek: Alternative Realities Collective,” a five-disc collection featuring episodes from all five “Star Trek” TV franchises, including new interviews and commentaries.
Quick, name the five series. OK, I can’t do it without the cheat sheet.
This collection features “Star Trek” (the original series), “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise.” Twenty episodes in all are selected, with a lot of brand new bonus materials.
Coincidentally, arriving in my inbox recently was the “remastered edition” of Season Two of “Star Trek: The Original Series,” which is touted to have enhanced visual effects for standard DVD players. That’s a bit of good news, since I don’t have HD or Blu-ray.
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.