The Coens' latest, Burn After Reading, swings hard away from the scorching dramatic thriller that was No Country for Old Men and instead delivers a largely delightful tribute to absurdity, stupidity, and pointlessness, skewering the stuffiness of CIA thrillers and then twisting the knife. It's one of the best and arguably the cleverest comedy of the year.
The film centers around a good old-fashioned MacGuffin (in this case a misplaced CD full of what appears to be "secret CIA shit"), the pursuit for it, the people who get their hands on it, and the blackmail, spying, and death that ensues. The plot could be that of a drama if it weren't for the fact that the people who get ahold of the CD are idiots. Fucking retards. Absolute boneheads who quickly end up way over their heads and drag just about everyone they meet down with them into the web of manic absurdity. While the first act picks up steam a hair slowly as we are introduced to John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton's characters, it escalates into one of most preposterous and hilarious third acts I've seen lately as all the plot threads come colliding in unpredictable and bizarre ways that spit in the face of conventional narrative structure.
Like many a Coen brothers comedy, Burn After Reading is pitch black. Not quite to the degree of Fargo, but it can be compared to that film in terms of the unfortunate miring of people into a mess of their own making, one that becomes increasingly hopeless. The characters are all pathetic in their own ways and the film is messy, dark, and violent - playing it all for laughs, of course. More power to it; anyone who doesn't like it can go see that fucking Dane Cook movie.
The cast is a solid combination of Coen regulars (George Clooney, Francis McDormand) and several newcomers, the best of whom and the primary scenestealer is Brad Pitt. I gotta say, I love Pitt. He occasionally cashes in on his looks / coolness and picks up a tepid paycheck (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), but he fucking comes to life in just about any edgy, independent fare - Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, The Assassination of Jesse James, and hopefully The Curious Case of Benjamin Button this winter all come to mind - and although his character here is just a simple idiot (one of the two who winds up with the "secret CIA shit" along with McDormand), he sells it with his overly intense and earnest line readings. He had the whole theater I was in cracking up every time he opened his mouth and I was bellowing right along with them; great performance.
All in all, definitely liked it, would and will definitely watch again. The Coens aren't quite infallible (The Ladykillers), but they have a style all to their own and do dark comedy like just about no one else. Burn After Reading is smart, it's funny, it's original. See it!
4 Stars out of 5