Coens’ ‘Burn’ offers dark humor


Film: Burn After Reading

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Producers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, tim Bevan, Eric Fellner

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Runtime: 96 Minutes

Rating: R


In terms of wide releases, 2008 has been one of the worst years in recent memory. Nearly every film not named “Wall-E” or “The Dark Knight” has been a major disappointment, and seeing a film in theaters has turned into a dreadful experience. But with the Coen brothers’ latest, “Burn After Reading,” we’re now one movie closer to actually having a respectable year.

After CIA Agent Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is forced to resign, he decides to spend his retirement writing a memoir, which angers his wife, Katie Cox (Swinton). She decides to divorce him and continue her affair with treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (Clooney). Needing Osborne’s financial information, she copies everything from his PC, memoirs included, onto a disc for her lawyer. But along the way, the CD gets lost at Hardbodies, a gym where employees Linda Litzke (McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) work. Finding the CD, they mistake it for high-level government intelligence and attempt to blackmail Osborne for the disc. This starts a domino effect of mishaps and stupidity that draws in not only the CIA, but the Russians as well.

“Burn” is a black comedy, a criminally underrated subgenre that offers intelligent jokes with serious undertones as opposed to simple, visual gags. Because of this, the film is not the laugh-filled romp it was marketed to be. There are still plenty of jokes, but in typical Coen fashion, they require a bit of thought. This is by no means a bad thing – other films, most notably 2006’s “The Fountain,” have had misleading marketing campaigns, only to offer a fantastic film regardless. Even though “Burn” may not have nearly as many jokes as the Coens’ masterpiece, “The Big Lebowski,” it’s still a great comedy that’ll keep a smile on your face more often than not.

In place of those jokes are the layers upon layers of themes and morals. Much like “Lebowski,” the jokes and characters have many different levels to them, exposing the Coens’ social commentary they expertly craft into their films. The world in “Burn” is one where people have lost their sense of communication, where people rely heavily on technology to connect to others as opposed to going out and actually meeting them. The result is people like the self-conscious and lonely Litzke, who desperately wants plastic surgery so she can look better in her pictures on the dating website that she uses to meet potential lovers. And then there’s the paranoid, sex-crazed Pfarrer, who’s always looking over his back, hoping his wife doesn’t catch him with the many women he hooks up with who he too finds through a dating service. If these characters just stopped and looked at what they were doing, they would see the ridiculousness of their actions, a lesson that many people could learn.

Of course, this reliance on technology has made everyone tremendously stupid, a trait that provides many of the film’s laughs. And even with such talent behind the camera, relying on a cast of bone-headed characters can be a dangerous gamble – don’t take it far enough and it won’t have any impact, take it too far and it will cheapen the whole experience. Fortunately, it’s the talent in front of the camera that makes “Burn” a truly great film. Clooney and Pitt are fantastic as always, and McDormand reminds us that she’s probably the best actress in Hollywood today. But it’s Malkovich that steals the show, delivering a performance that will have you laughing long after you’ve left the theater. The ensemble cast in “Burn” is, hands down, the best this year.

After the amazing, yet taxing “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens follow their award-winner with another fantastic film. Though it may not reach the heights set by their last picture, “Burn After Reading” is still a deep, intelligent and hilarious comedy. Go see this one in theaters, and then see it again.