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Burn After Reading (AF)


Stars: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, J K Simmons

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

They were considered to be cult filmmakers right from the start which meant that critical acclaim was their basic right, despite such less than impressive movies as The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. Now, however, after having been garlanded with Oscars for No Country for Old Men, brothers Ethan and Joel Coen can do no wrong in the eyes of most reviewers.

Well, for my money (and, yes, I foolishly paid to see Burn After Reading in New York where the five other audience members failed to laugh very often, and I then did my duty and saw it again at a press show) their latest black comedy thriller has been overrated, especially in comparison with their classic comedies like Raising Arizona, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Ignoring the fact that they failed to raise many real laughs from me (which, after all, is a personal judgment and not an empirical one), I thought their screwball comedy-thriller plot really should have had another couple of rewrites. There’s something amiss when the plot has to be summed up – and some of the repeated narrative gaps filled in – when a minor character explains what happened, on and off screen, to laconic CIA operative Simmons who gives one of the two notable performances, the other coming from Pitt and his portrait of a dim gym trainer trying, with plastic surgery-hopeful colleague McDormand, to make money from the disc containing dismissed CIA analyst Malkovich’s memoirs - which falls into their hands.

Ever-smug Clooney delivers a broad comic turn as a Federal Marshal having an affair with Malkovich’s icy-cold wife Swinton, Malkovich goes far enough over the top to be cast as the villain in a provincial pantomime and the Coens keep a brisk pace (their precise editing as ‘Rodney James’ is perhaps the most effective aspect of the film) but, compared with their great comedies, I found this a pallid and sadly forgettable offering.

Alan Frank

USA 2008. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour by deluxe.
96 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 17 Oct 2008