Washington wackiness

The Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading" is a deliciously mordant excursion into the depths of black

From the Coen brothers, who just won numerous accolades, including an Oscar for “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading” is a farce.

A deliciously mordant excursion into the depths of black humor in the tradition of “Fargo” by way of Diane Arbus, this serving may be a novelty, but it’s not totally frivolous. If it ridicules a plethora of human foibles, it hits some of the right targets.

“They all seem to be sleeping with each other,” deadpans a CIA chief played by J.J Simmons late in the movie. He’s talking primarily about George Clooney’s wandering sex addict, a fellow named Harry Pfarrer. It’s not enough that Harry has a wife and a physician mistress Kate (Tilda Swinton) on the side. He hits the Internet for other women, too, all the while building a pleasure contraption he first shows to another online pickup, a lonely gym attendant named Linda Luitze. She’s played by Coen regular Frances McDormand, who seems to be channeling her character in “Fargo.”

Dumb pair

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she exclaims when she receives a piece of crucial information. This time her character is not playing dumb. She is dumb. What a riot when she visits her plastic surgeon, who recommends four different procedures, including liposuction and rhinoplasty.

’Burn After Reading’


STARRING George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons


RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

Also playing against type, and doing it with moronic gusto, is Brad Pitt. He’s Chad, Linda’s colleague, a gum-chewing personal trainer with hair dyed around the edges. Though Pitt is not as versatile an actor as his champions may think, he is at least adequate as a genuine doofus, who in this tale of mock intrigue, gets in way over his head in his dealings with a frenzied CIA agent. He’s Princeton grad Osborne Cox, played with neurotic intensity by John Malkovich, who seems to be having one hell of a time portraying this unraveling nutcase.

Enter into the fray Richard Jenkins, who starred in “The Visitor.” He’s the gym manager with a crush on Linda; he’d go to the mat for her, and you will howl when you learn about his former life.

The carousel of insane coincidences begins to circle after the entitled Osborne is first demoted and then summarily quits. Forgot to mention that he is the cuckold married to Swinton’s Kate, who will later be approached by Linda and Chad, the two aforementioned dimwits — all working in the nation’s capitol, here inhabited by a circus of dunces. It’s a notion underscored in the hilarious final scene when Simmons and his cohort wonder, “What have we learned?”

Just a joyride

He might as well be talking to us, for it’s a sign that although they take some satiric jabs here and there, the Coens are just taking us on a jolly ride. It is as if they are taking a breather from more profound ventures, gleefully exposing their characters as unofficial members of a league of morons. If it were set in London and the characters sported accents, some viewers might agree that it is a zestier, naughtier version of those trademark comedies starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

It’s fun to watch this company of sharp, seasoned performers have fun, and doing it without giving themselves self-congratulatory pats on the back. That’s why I take to “Burn After Reading” with more affection than I can embrace a uniform waste of talent called “Ocean’s 11.”

This is, after all, the Coen Brothers, and even if it is not their finest offering, it is good enough to outrank most other comedies out there.

Categories: Life and Arts

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