Coen brothers at home with nitwits, lamebrains
If you’re the least bit into the spy genre, you’ll remember a hit theme song that began, “There’s a man who lives a life of danger.” The series, “Secret Agent,” and the crafty Coen brothers have turned household paranoia into a near international crisis.
After a long-time CIA analyst bored by bureaucracy quits rather than accept reassignment due to “drinking too much,” Oz (John Malkovich) decides to pen his memoirs. On the same playing field, his wife (Tilda Swinton) has an affair going with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a treasury agent. Intermingling financials and manuscript on a CD, a clerk for his wife’s soon to be divorce attorney loses a copy of the disc at the gym.
An energetic personal trainer (Brad Pitt) finds the disk and urged by a middle-aged single woman, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who’s wanting to reinvent herself with cosmetic surgery, believe they have a top secret item worth enough bucks to pay for Linda’s operations.
Slicing and securing loose ends like whittling carrot sticks, “Burn After Reading” has an uncertain start, but soon becomes a who’s spying on whom while everyone sleeps with each other laugh circus. An Internet dating service provides serendipity for overlapping paths which unleash chaotic assumptions and watch your back paranoia.
Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) , not Clooney or Pitt, wobbles from dejected and beat up to an icy, imaginative, empowerment dynamo. She has enough quirks to set up a zoo; this diva steals the acting circus.
Give Pitt (with a striped blonde haircut and a cool bike) and Clooney thumbs up for joining the ensemble. Pitt brings the rampant energy of youth; Clooney adds a well-acted rational jerk persona.
Of course Malkovich has a Jekyll/Hyde quiet inquisitive personality that when ignited swerves first to the irrational then gradually ebbs to psychotic.
“Burn After Reading” has laughs spilling over the top, particularly as accidental encounters brew hilarious and idiotic character flaws — which bounce handily off the dark farcical umbrella of deception and suspicion with international security implications derived from mundane domestic data.
Langley (Virginia) management (J.K. Simmons) has a perfectly indifferent just keep it covered up attitude, even as peering eyes step beyond the observance threshold and into a mounting body count.
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