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Burn After Reading (15)

Director: Ethan and Joel Coen Starring : John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, George ClooneyCan

Last week saw the return of the Coen brothers with a distinctly average attempt at a screwball comedy, Burn After Reading.

The film attempts to piece together the seemingly unconnected fallout surrounding the recently dismissed C.I.A. analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). His memoirs fall into the hands of gym employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and goofy co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) who plan to blackmail Cox. Following this failure the next logical step for cosmetic surgery-obsessed Linda is to take the information to the Russians, albeit the Russian cultural attaché.

Meanwhile we are introduced to Cox’s frosty wife (Tilda Swinton), hilariously unsuitable for her job as a paediatrician given her clear hatred of children, and her lover Harry (George Clooney), a sleazy lothario who scours Internet dating sites in order to seduce and sleep with anyone who isn’t his wife.

The story arcs collide when the desperately lonely blackmailer Linda meets Harry online and promptly falls into bed with him. It is with great pride and a sense of dread that we are informed that as an armed bodyguard he has not discharged his weapon in 20 years’ service, yet nothing quite prepares us for the inevitable.

Unfortunately the film seems to be lacking in every area where Joel and Ethan Coen excel, which gives nothing but the impression of laziness and confusion. The plot is nowhere near as complicated as it thinks it is, although to some extent that is the point of the film.

The usually sharp irony found in their writing is almost nonexistent, the very few laugh out loud moments to be found in the film come through shocking the audience with unexpected images of violence and crudity.

The actors seem to be determined to outdo each other in levels of melodrama and eccentricity, which allows them to feel completely disconnected from each other, and us unconcerned with their fate. Only Brad Pitt manages not to disappoint as the vain and vacuous gym trainer, who is delightfully idiotic in his naivety.

The Coen brothers are victims of their own well-earned success and reputation. Burn After Reading contains no real drive and certainly no sense of cohesion between the characters and events which we have grown to expect. Like the C.I.A. bosses looking for answers, their final words frame the film with sentiments felt upon leaving the cinema: “What did we learn? Not to do it again… What a clusterfuck!”

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