Coen broth­ers fail the com­edy test

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

BURN AF­TER READ­ING (15) HAV­ING WON an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of Os­cars, in­clud­ing Best Di­rec­tion, Best Screen­play and Best Pic­ture for their mes­meris­ing amoral thriller Coun­try for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen re­turn to com­edy. It is a genre they are very comfortable with, hav­ing pro­duced such clas­sics as Rais­ing Ari­zona, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

How­ever, this well-cast but self-in­dul­gently scripted screw­ball com­edy thriller does not get any­where near their pre­vi­ous suc­cesses. Burn Af­ter Read­ing is very much a mi­nor comic work in the Coen oeu­vre, al­though cer­tainly bet­ter (it would be dif­fi­cult not to be) than The Ladykillers and the in­tol­er­a­ble Coen-scripted In­tol­er­a­ble Cru­elty.

The in­creas­ingly fre­netic goings-on be­gin with an­a­lyst Os­borne Cox (over­played by John Malkovich) be­ing dis­missed from his job with the CIA (“Whose ass didn’t I kiss?” he asks bit­terly). He re­turns to his Wash­ing­ton home to drink, write his mem­oirs and bicker with his frosty wife Katie (Tilda Swin­ton), who is plan­ning to leave Os­borne for mar­ried Fed­eral mar­shal Harry Pfar­rer (Ge­orge Clooney).

Mean­while — and un­for­tu­nately the Coens’ screen­play con­tains rather too many “mean­whiles” for co­her­ent nar- ra­tive flow — not-too-bright fit­ness­cen­tre em­ployee Linda Fritze (Frances McDor­mand) and her even less bright col­league Chad (Brad Pitt) come into pos­ses­sion of a com­puter disc con­tain­ing ma­te­rial from Os­borne’s mem­oirs. Set on ex­ploit­ing their find, they trig­ger off a se­ries of comic capers which may well have amused the Coens and their cast, but will do lit­tle to please cin­ema-go­ers. The Coens ap­pear to have been reach­ing for the kind of spi­ral­ing yet strangely log­i­cal Looney Tunes ap­peal of, par­tic­u­larly, Rais­ing Ari­zona. If so, they fail, pro­duc­ing in­stead a se­ries of mildly funny episodes without a strong enough nar­ra­tive spine to weave the com­edy and the un­con­vinc­ing thriller plot­line into a co­her­ent whole.

The Coens do all they can as direc­tors to drive the story along fast enough to coast over the fre­quent plot holes, but all their tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise and their skilled edit­ing work are not enough in the face of their mi­nor-league (for them) screen­play.

I couldn’t help feel­ing at times that the shal­low­ness of the en­ter­prise was the re­sult of the film­mak­ers tak­ing a break from the con­sid­er­able in­tel­lec­tual and tech­ni­cal labour that re­sulted in their pre­vi­ous movie, the Os­car-laden No Coun­try for All Men.

T h e most e n - ter­tain­ing com­edy comes from Pitt who comes across as hi­lar­i­ously goofy. Sadly he has rel­a­tively lit­tle screen time, leav­ing the act­ing hon­ours to be scooped by McDor­mand who de­liv­ers a splen­didly off-cen­tre comic per­for­mance. Clooney does noth­ing spe­cial and Malkovich does noth­ing spe­cial to ex­cess. Which leaves the markedly less fa­mous J K Sim­mons to de­liver fun­ni­est and most mem­o­rable per­for­mance play­ing the poker-faced CIA op­er­a­tive whose job it is to ex­plain what is go­ing on.

Brad Pitt plays stupid

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