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Vol. LXII, No. 38
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

LOOK AT WHAT THAT LAST CLIENT LEFT BEHIND!: Linda (Frances McDormand, left) and coworker Chad (Brad Pitt) can’t believe their eyes when they look at the contents of a CD which their customer, who is divorcing her husband (who is an ex CIA agent), left behind and realize that it is full of classified material.

Burn After Reading: Coen Brothers Assemble A-List Cast for a Screwball Comedy

Kam Williams

Earlier this year the Coen Brothers were the toast of Hollywood when they each won three Academy Awards for No Country for Old Men in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay categories. Not ones to rest on their laurels, the siblings have followed that success with another fine film, Burn after Reading, a spoof presumably inspired by the autobiography, with the same name, of former CIA director Stansfield Turner.

Joel and Ethan Coen have come up with a screwball comedy which measures up to their best contributions to the genre which include Fargo, Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The top flight cast assembled for the production is comprised of Coen veterans Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, and J.K. Simmons; along with newcomers Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton.

Burn after Reading is enjoyable more for its quirky characters than for its storyline which is far more convoluted than most people in the audience might care to follow. What really makes the movie hilarious was the willingness of some cast members, especially Pitt and Clooney, to throw themselves so convincingly into roles which make them look like idiots.

The action opens at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia where Agent Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is being confronted about his drinking problem by his boss. Ozzie opts to quit the Agency to write his memoirs rather than accept a demotion to a position with a lower clearance level.

This development doesn’t sit well with his disenchanted wife, Katie (Swinton), a pediatrician who’s been involved in a clandestine affair with Harry (Clooney). Harry’s a mid-level bureaucrat with the Treasury Department who is married to Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), a best selling children’s book author.

Katie decides to divorce Ozzie, and is sure that Harry will choose to leave his spouse, too. What Katie doesn’t know is that Harry has also been having dalliances with other women whom he’s found using the internet.

Before Katie starts the divorce proceedings she consults her attorney who advises her to dig up some dirt on her husband prior to filing any papers. The plot thickens when the classified CIA documents she downloads from her husband’s commputer accidentally end up in the hands of Linda (McDormand) and Chad (Pitt), co-workers at Hardbodies Fitness Center.

As it turns out, Linda is desperately trying to raise money to cover the cost of four cosmetic surgery procedures she’s got lined up. So, over the objections of her boss (Jenkins), and with the help of Chad, she hatches a plan to blackmail Ozzie. However, the jaded ex-agent refuses to be blackmailed, and simultaneously, Chad mysteriously disappears. Desperate, Linda next decides to approach the Russians.

This move places her under the surveillance of CIA agents (David Rasche and Simmons) who mistake her motivations for something much more sinister than cosmetic surgery. The madcap Keystone Cop antics which ensue are not only funny but also shocking and thought provoking.

Alternatively mirthful and macabre, while poking fun at both modern mating habits and the paranoia of espionage culture, Burn after Reading is an intelligent diversion.

Excellent (Four Stars). Rated R for sexuality, violence, and profanity. Running time: 96 minutes. Studio: Focus Features.

For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

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