September 16, 2008 -- “Burn After Reading” is a bloody uneven comedy, largely populated by idiots. If murders by gun and axe are your idea of laughs, then this is your film. There is literally nobody to root for. The only honest, decent character in the entire film gets brutally murdered. The film is funny in spots, but it is very uneven as it blares and shudders along to its destination. It seems to be missing a wheel. At least this film has an honest to God ending, unlike the Coen Brothers' (Ethan and Joel) last film, “No Country For Old Men.” Yeah, its the Coen Brothers again. Who else could have even gotten this film made?
This is a comedy of errors. A couple of low-wattage health club workers, Linda Litzke (played by Frances McDormand of “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) stumble upon a memoir written by ex-CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich of “The Libertine”) and, thinking it contains valuable spy-type information, they decide, stupidly, to try to use the information to blackmail Cox into giving them money. At the same time, Cox's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton of “Michael Clayton”) is having an affair with yet another government agent, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney of “Michael Clayton”). Harry, a real hound, is also having another affair at the same time with Linda Litzke. Harry, of course, is also married. That is a lot of coincidences, since Harry just happens to meet Linda Litzke through an online dating service. Also in the mix is Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins of “Rumor Has It”) who is desperately in love with Linda, but can't bring himself to tell her. Also in the mix is a CIA supervisor (J.K. Simmons of “Juno”) whose verbal attempts to make sense of the strange happenings in this film serve both to explain what is going on and to put things into a humorous perspective.
This all-star cast of top-notch actors certainly helps bring this strange script (written by the Coen brothers) to life. McDormand, Swinton, Pitt and Clooney are all effectively loopy and self-centered. Malkovich plays a particularly malevolent psychopathic drunk. Richard Jenkins is very good as a man at the mercy of his own feelings. J.K. Simmons is as sharp as a knife playing one of the few characters in the movie with much brainpower. Some have called this a dark comedy. I don't think it is particularly dark, except for the axe murder, of course. It is really more of a bizarre comedy. It would have to be more believable to be taken seriously as a dark comedy. This story comes out of some alternate universe. It isn't really believable, but it does bear at least a faint resemblance to the real world. The film also seems to be a lot more serious about those murders than it is about the comedy. This film rates a C+.
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