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A cinema review of BURN AFTER READING by Camus
"It was very amusing to us," Ethan said.
"Went right into the 'Life is strange' file," Joel said.
The Coen Brothers upon being asked whether their
Oscar sweep affected the way they regard the industry.


How do you bounce back from Oscar glory? James Cameron has yet to and his starry night was well over a decade ago. The Coen brothers are now – officially – Hollywood royalty but do you think this will turn their heads? The red carpet's barely in mothballs and out comes another idiosyncratic Coen classic. I do not like the word 'quirky' except for its triple sound-alike continuity ("quirky Coen classic") so idiosyncratic will have to do and boy, have they rounded up some idios...

It was clear from their very (blood) simple beginnings that Ethan and Joel Cohen were not in this business to win awards. To see their faithful and assured adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men strike Oscar gold (Best Movie, Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor) was nothing more to the brothers than the sort of thing that can and does happen (albeit unexpectedly) in the film industry. Handing them a bunch of gold plated statuettes – to some the pinnacle and to some others even the very defining moment of a career – seems like feeding a fish to a cow; just somehow strange, wrong in all manner of ways and perhaps the dodgy basis of another script. Given the gravitas and Oscar™ magnetism of No Country, the Cohens bounded back into screwball mode and we're all the better for that. As their Lebowski's Dude finally starts to take on iconic T-Shirt status in the US, then Burn's Chad will shortly join him. Brad Pitt excels as a preening, hair obsessed idiot in a film full of prize idiots in some guise or another.

It is impossible to summarise this film without letting some of the plot leak out and to tell the truth, figuring out the plot is half the fun seeing how artfully the movie is constructed. But I'll give you a starter; CIA analyst John Malkovich has been demoted and he's unhappy about this. His marriage is under threat from serial womaniser George Clooney who has his sights and other parts of his anatomy firmly set on Malkovich's wife played by Tilda Swinton. How can this breathtaking actress be both chilling and sexy? Her performance in Michael Clayton's final scene staggered me with its extraordinary power. I've never seen a more honest performance in a Hollywood movie. Let's give Clooney his due. His performance was as strong if not quite as startling. A copy of Malkovich's ongoing memoirs turns up by mistake at a local gymnasium. Mistaking the CD-ROM for valuable intelligence, two gym employees (Pitt and Cohen brothers' staple and wife to Joel, Frances McDormand), both not especially gifted in the grey matter department, decide to extort money from Malkovich. She's after a princely sum to be more of the perfect gym-woman via plastic surgery. Vanity and stupidity are such entertaining bedfellows. Things, as they say, then go decidedly south. Malkovich is one of those actors who does frustrated rage so well, it's almost become his trademark. You know you do not want to be in the same room as him once the shit starts flying. And airborne excreta is soon everywhere.

Characters intersect in the most haphazard and ludicrous ways. It was a good while into this sprawl of a movie before you are able to pull all the characters together and figure out the many connections. The effect of making movies about essentially shallow and stupid people is that your caring gene doesn't get nudged too often but as this is an out and out comedy and I laughed hard at least ten times, I'd say this is one time when caring can be sidelined. Do you know how rare it is to laugh loudly in a cinema? And be joined by an audience, each member of which 'got it'? Take a bow, L.A. 2008 where I saw the film with what seemed like 400 sympathetic souls. One of the most satisfying laughs was at the eventual fate of one character and as it's a huge punch in the stomach of the film, the shock of it adds to the ballsy humour.

The stellar cast does not disappoint. George Clooney, once again cheerfully sending up his 'gorgeous George' persona, is having a string of affairs through an online dating service as well as his 'normal' affair with Malkovich's wife, Tilda Swinton. Married to a woman it turns out he really needs just to function, Clooney plays goofy playboy with the usual charm. The comic touch displayed in the Coens' terrific O Brother, Where Art Thou? is present and correct. I really enjoy smart actors playing dumb. Curious it rarely happens the other way around but then how would I know? The real treat of Burn is the double act of Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand. These are not 120 watters at the best of times. Pitt's mere delivery of the word 'shit' has me smiling on recall. His Chad Feldheimer, destined to be quoted by would be cool playgrounders, is so gloriously ridiculous that when he has his defining moment in the film it's almost sad if you weren't doubled up with laughter.

The patriach from Six Feet Under, Richard Jenkins, plays the gym owner and he carries a torch for McDormand (who is wonderfully and utterly oblivious to this fact) and is in every sense the most tragic character of the ensemble. All he wants to do is the right thing and so in Coen-world, he must suffer! And boy, do they make him suffer. If the meek shall inherit the Earth, then before that they must deal with blades a-plenty. Throughout the narrative, as Malkovich's descent into rage fuelled violence increases, we are treated to two or three scenes of an FBI Chief being told the practical result of the ongoing saga by an underling. This is comic writing and performance effortlessly joined at the hip. Unlike the audience who are at least aware of the connections and the agendas of the principal protagonists, the CIA Chief just has the aftermath. He has the consequences and the bodies. It's J. K. Simmons (Peter Parker's boss in the Spider-Man franchise) who excels in this dry and droll roll. In fact, I'd say that his scenes were the funniest because it was like looking at the movie from a helicopterian perspective. His knee jerk response ("Burn the bodies!") is beautifully judged and his performance almost steals Pitt's as the stand out one of the movie.

Just go and see it and e-mail me if you hated it. I'll still laugh.

Burn After Reading

USA 2008
96 mins
Ethan Coen
Joel Coen
Tim Bevan
Ethan Coen
Joel Coen
Eric Fellner
Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Emmanuel Lubezki
Ethan Coen
Joel Coen
Carter Burwell
production design
Jess Gonchor
George Clooney
Frances McDormand
Brad Pitt
John Malkovich
Tilda Swinton
Richard Jenkins
David Rasche
release date (UK)
17 October 2008
review posted
24 September 2008

related review
No Country for Old Men

See all of Camus's reviews