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Coens' cynical spy spoof

  • 23 October 2008

Burn After Reading: 96 minutes. Rated: MA. Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Starring: Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, J. K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins

It can be hard to spot the villain in a Coen Brothers movie. In No Country For Old Men, Javier Bardem's ruthless bounty hunter was conspicuously evil; less obvious were the self-serving tendencies of his sullen quarry, the archetypal cowboy played by Josh Brolin, whose theft of a sack of drug money provoked the bloody pursuit.

The Coens' latest offering, the spy comedy Burn After Reading, is not as bleak as No Country For Old Men. But it does jostle with unlikeable characters, a fact that tends to blur the lines of responsibility for its tragic outcomes.

Like No Country For Old Men (and, for that matter, the Coens' other masterpiece, Fargo), Burn After Reading chronicles the fatal fallout that takes place due to an inept scheme executed by an ostensibly decent human being. In this case the instigator of the scam is endearingly goofy gym employee Linda Litzke (McDormand).

Middle-aged, single, and surrounded daily by the gym's fit clients, Linda dreams of being able to afford the cosmetic surgery that she believes will give her body, and therefore her life, perfection. When her incessantly upbeat associate Chad (a hilarious Pitt) discovers that a disk found on the gym floor contains classified CIA information, she sees her chance, and enlists Chad's help to blackmail the disk's owner.

Said owner is one Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), an alcoholic ex-CIA analyst with a monstrous ego and a grudge to match. He's no pushover, and what Linda envisioned as a straightforward scam gets complicated.

She fails, for example, to account for the fact that the information on the disk might not be as valuable as she imagined. She also doesn't plan for the presence in Cox's world of womanising and increasingly paranoid treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a man with an itchy trigger finger, who has been sleeping with Cox's ill-tempered wife Katie (Swinton) and, coincidentally, is the same Harry that Linda recently hooked up with via an internet dating site.

Convoluted, yes, and, like any good spy thriller, each convolution exacerbates the layers of intrigue. But it's all very farcical, closer in tone to other Coen comedies such as The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? than Fargo or Miller's Crossing. Yet the