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Burn After Reading

(2008) *** R
96 min. Focus Features. Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins.

/content/films/3217/2.jpgThe Coen Brothers' new comedy Burn After Reading is to American stupidity what Dr. Strangelove is to the bomb. Fresh off the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, the most popular nihilists of contemporary cinema again inhabit a chaotic universe in which morality is nearly extinct and human nature is base. Burn After Reading's sour candy is redeemed by its humor and its clever construction, harkening back to the relatively optimistic crime comedy Fargo.

Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen construct the plot as a roundelay of fatefully interconnected characters, beginning with Osborne Cox (an amusingly apoplectic John Malkovich), a well-heeled, Princeton-bred CIA analyst kicked to the curb (ostensibly for his drinking). It's the latest annoyance for Cox's icy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who has already struck up an affair with Treasury man Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a serial philanderer. When a disc containing apparently sensitive information turns up at Hardbodies Fitness Center, dimwitted Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) cuts in his workmate and best bud Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) on a scam to blackmail Cox. Linda proves gung ho as she "needs" the money to get a complete battery of cosmetic surgeries.

Chad refers to the disc's contents as "raw intelligence," which I suppose could also be a delicate euphemism for the moronity of the blackmailers, the unformed thinking of the characters in choosing a direction in their lives, and the amoral pseudo-function of the CIA. "Appearances can be deceptive," Chad repeats to Cox. "I'm a mere Good Samaritan." All but one of the film's characters are on the take, and most have become skilled at hiding it (for some, it's their job). A plastic surgeon (Jeffrey DeMunn) has perfected the art of the passive-aggressive consultation. A divorce lawyer refers to a husband as "a man practiced in deceit," while telling his wife, "You can be a spy too, madam."

At times, Burn After Reading plays like a screwball comedy on Xanax, and the Coens layer in a number of character-based running jokes that pay dividends. The actors respond, striking all the right notes. Clooney is very funny as a man who seems to keep applying his energy in the wrong way (and who seems in constant danger of slipping into anaphylactic shock), and Pitt effectively cuts loose as the ultimate in vapid, vain metrosexuality, a guy emboldened by what he's seen in movies and heard on his iPod (Pitt's goofy dancing gets plenty of mileage, as do his eye-narrowing attempts to intimidate). The always great McDormand fully embodies a woman whose soul has been crushed by American life (the flip side of Pitt's character). And Richard Jenkins is pricelessly understated, as when he laments, "I can't run a gym this way."

One character proposes, "Don't sweat the small stuff. And it's all small stuff," but it's only a prelude for the next disaster. In the Coens' Washington D.C., actions have serious consequences, but random chance can be fatal. Goodness gets characters nowhere, while hard-driving selfishness pays off for one lucky individual. Some mysteries will never be solved, and some messes will never be cleaned up. That brand of bleakness suggests Greek tragedy, but where a moral of the story might go, two CIA suits agree they've learned nothing (with David Rasche as his angel in waiting, J.K. Simmons' omniscient but ineffectual CIA boss could easily be read as the Coens' black-comic vision of God, or what passes for one in a godless universe). Likewise, Burn After Reading's version of the tidy wrapup expected in a traditional comedy hardly qualifies as "all's well that ends well." But it does tap the zeitgeist of our political position and our worst fears about "idiot America."

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 12/21/2008

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal's Blu-ray transfer of Burn After Reading is simply gorgeous: finely detailed, filmlike, and perfect in its color rendering. Though the film isn't possessed of an especially immersive sound mix, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is certainly more than adequate to represent the theatrical experience in lossless audio.

The ever-elliptical Coens probably have to be bullied into doing special features, so it's a pleasant surprise to see a few brief featurettes here, all with a smattering of intriguing on-set footage, and all in sharp HD. "Finding the Burn" (5:31, HD) is a behind-the-scenes overview touching on themes and personalities. Joel & Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, and Tilda Swinton participate.

"DC Insiders Run Amuck" (12:24, HD) moves through each character and attendant actor, arriving at a discussion of the film's design, with comments from the Coens, Jenkins, McDormand, Clooney, costume designer Mary Zophres, Swinton, Malkovich, and production designer Jess Gonchor.

"Welcome Back George" (2:51, HD) specifically focuses on Clooney and his character, with thoughts from the Coens, Clooney, and Zophres.

Because this is a Universal Blu-ray, there's also a My Scenes bookmarking feature and a BD Live hookup to exclusive online content. The mirrored DVD edition also features a nice transfer and the same bonus features, but the Blu-ray cannot be beat.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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