Burn After Reading

Coming off multiple Oscars for No Country for Old Men, the Coens get back to work with this colorful, low-key riff on film noir, spy movies, and soap opera that reaches giddy comic heights when it goes behind the scenes with top-level CIA spooks trying to sort out the film’s tightly intertwined goings-on. Frances McDormand stars as the Coens’ cock-eyed idea of a femme fatale — a seriously dopey personal trainer who hatches a scheme to fund a series of desperately wished-for plastic surgeries by working with overly exuberant colleague Brad Pitt in an underthought extortion scheme that enrages newly retired CIA agent John Malkovich. Meanwhile, George Clooney is having an affair with Malkovich’s wife, Tilda Swinton (among many other Washington-area women). The details are unimportant. What matters is the singularly witty rapid-fire dialogue, the oversized comic performances (like Pitt’s bubbly dance moves) and the understated flourishes (like Swinton’s hilarious facial tics). Fueled by sex, violence, and a cynically bemused attitude toward the whole idea of government intelligence, Burn After Reading doesn’t feel quite like anything else in the Coen Brothers’ filmography — think of its casual black comedy as a cross between The Big Lebowski and Fargo, set on the Potomac. 

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