Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading: Combustible!

Burn After Reading (2008) • View trailer for Burn After Reading
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, sexual content and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.12.08
Buy DVD: Burn After Reading • Buy Blu-Ray: Burn After Reading [Blu-ray]

Brad Pitt's Chad Feldheimer is worth the price of admission.

In a wickedly hilarious film laden with clueless characters, his numbskull fitness center employee is to die for: an arrested adolescent and (no doubt) high school drop-out, with a trusting, ingenuous smile, a little-girl giggle and an absolute refusal to allow his lack of wisdom or intelligence to interfere with even the wildest notion that might pop into his head.
Believing they have something of interest to the Russian Embassy, Chad
Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) dress nicely for
their first meeting with an obviously suspicious intermediary, who can't figure
out whether to take his two guests seriously, or dismiss them as lunatics. The
Russians aren't alone; as this story progresses, nobody knows quite what to
make of the opportunistic meatheads who populate this gleeful farce.

Chad's view of the world obviously is based solely on a youthful diet of movies and TV shows, and his beatific ignorance is a work of thespic art.

Watching this guy "help" fitness center patrons will make even the hardiest soul wince, because it's blindingly obvious that Chad's "expert advice" to unwary exercisers is anything but, and that his efforts to assist a customer while stretching and straining are likely to do actual physical harm.

Pitt is but one of the many delights in Burn After Reading, a welcome return to the exaggerated dark farce that the Coen brothers delivered so well in Fargo.

Burn After Reading doesn't have the core "straight" characters who also made Fargo so engaging; the primary players here are broadly drawn burlesques, with a few well-meaning innocent bystanders thrown in for contrast. The resulting film belongs in the company of Wag the Dog and Dr. Strangelove: pictures that mercilessly skewer the American political and intelligence networks with such gleeful panache that we're gulled into dismissing them as cynical larks ... while secretly hoping that things really aren't that bad.

The chaos begins on an average day at CIA headquarters in Arlington, Va., as mid-level analyst Osborne "Ozzie" Cox (John Malkovich) is ambushed by a demotion. Not one to take such news lightly, he resigns in a fit of profanity-laden pique and returns home to begin what he hopes will be some seriously scandalous memoirs.

Truth be told, his security clearance never was high enough for the CIA to be concerned about such stuff and nonsense, but hey, Ozzie's also not the sharpest pencil in the box. Merely the one with the nastiest temper.

Ozzie's sudden unemployment comes as an unpleasant surprise to his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), a pediatrician — and picturing this woman interacting with small children is another scary thought, once we get to know her — well into an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a mildly paranoid U.S. federal marshal married to a popular children's book author.

Harry also is a serial philanderer who gets nervous when Katie seizes on Ozzie's meltdown as the excuse to finally proceed with her long-planned divorce.

Elsewhere in the D.C. suburbs, Hardbodies Fitness Center employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) has great plans for extensive cosmetic surgery on the body she has grown to loathe. Linda is convinced that a new look will improve her chances with Internet dating, and she remains oblivious to the fact that her boss — Richard Jenkins, as Ted Treffon — obviously adores her just the way she is, and desperately wishes that she'd notice him.

Alas, Linda's HMO refuses to pay for such elective surgery.

Linda and Ted work with the aforementioned Chad, where blind chance puts a computer disk into his hands, after it's accidentally left in the locker room by a legal assistant working for the attorney Katie has hired to begin divorce proceedings. The disk contains the opening salvo of Ozzie's memoirs; the clandestinely snooping Katie copied the information from her husband's computer while following her lawyer's suggestion to investigate the family finances.

Actually, the disc's contents are of absolutely no consequence; it's the Coen brothers' nod to a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin: the trivial object that fuels a complicated plot. Chad and Linda (with Chad's encouragement) persuade themselves that the disc's owner would pay a fortune for its return; Ozzie just wants it back because his volcanic temper can't stand the thought of somebody else mocking him, no matter what the reason.

With visions of a new body dancing like sugarplums in her head, Linda helps Chad concoct a hilariously inept scheme — elaborate to them, blindingly transparent to everybody else — to blackmail Ozzie, who of course doesn't respond well to this overture. Annoyed into further foolish behavior, Linda then falls back on "plan B," and offers to sell the disc to the Russians.

Somewhere around this point, the CIA gets wise to these unusual doings revolving around Ozzie's "secret" memoir, and dispatches field agents to keep an eye on the key players. But even before this decision is made, Harry already is being tailed by a shadowy dark car, which fuels his own rising anxiety.

The CIA officer (David Rasche) who fired Ozzie is forced to brief his superior (J.K. Simmons) about the increasingly bizarre twists revealed by their surveillance.

With so many characters spinning ever more out of control, these exchanges between Rasche and Simmons are a counterpoint of calm, and therefore some of the film's funniest moments. Rasche's collar-tightening discomfort is matched by Simmons' genuinely stunned astonishment; as fans of TV's The Closer know, Simmons — who plays Brenda's boss on that show — is sublime as a resourceful supervisor who becomes quietly desperate when the antics of his underlings threaten his efforts at PR spin control.

Meanwhile, by blind chance, Harry's newest Internet date turns out to be ... Linda.

Suddenly, all three sets of character collide, and with rather catastrophic results.

I was struck, watching Pitt's work here, by the subtle fact — so frequently ignored by Hollywood wannabes — that genuine acting talent is required to pull off a nincompoop with such panache. Stand-up comics and TV cast-offs like Will Ferrell and Steve Coogan have made imbeciles their stock-in-trade, and yet their performances are invariably forced, clumsy, unpersuasive and not the slightest bit funny. They can't act.

Pitt, in great contrast, makes Chad endearing for his foolishness; he's such a happy-go-lucky moron that we can't help being on his side, and wanting his harebrained scheme to succeed.

McDormand, always superb, shades Linda in a slightly different direction. Although also something of a dim bulb, and with desires that seem reasonable — to be more attractive, and to have a steady male companion — Linda's approach is somewhat more calculated and venal. We're never quite sure whether we like Linda, and her failure to acknowledge Ted — a genuinely nice guy — doesn't make her any more sympathetic.

Clooney, one of cinema's best nervous blinkers, makes the easily agitated Harry the antithesis of the unruffled "handler" he played so well in Michael Clayton. Although outwardly the model of control, Harry has compartmentalized his life and desires in such a way that we sense he'd react quite badly to a genuine surprise.

Harry also loves to announce that he has worn a gun for 20 years but never had to use it, a boast that a film of this nature can't help wanting to shatter.

Which brings me to the obligatory word of warning: This film has its tasteless and even nasty moments. The intervening 12 years have softened our memories of Fargo; many people fondly recall McDormand's marvelous, Oscar-winning performance, while forgetting details such as the notorious wood-chipper scene. Burn After Reading doesn't have anything quite that outré, but the easily offended are advised to proceed with caution.

Here's a hint: The Coens don't merely borrow the concept of a MacGuffin from Hitchcock; they also gleefully snatch a trick the Master of Suspense pulled in Psycho, much to the consternation of 1960s audiences.

Carter Burwell's bombastic score for Burn After Reading is perfectly suited to the material: percussively over-the-top when a scene demands as much, and quietly sinister as required at other moments.

A film of this crazed nature easily could spin out of control, but Joel and Ethan Coen — who share directing and writing credits — keep a firm grip on both the whacked-out plot and its hapless players. The result is terrific farce: as emblematic of the early 21st century as the Marx Brothers were of the 1930s.

And you gotta love the marketing tag line: "Intelligence is relative."

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