Burn After Reading

Brad Pitt is a man with his brains in his biceps in Burn After Reading. (Copyright 2008 Focus Features/Macall Polay)

Burn After Reading is Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest foray into screenwriting insanity. Like Fargo, it bears the Coen trademark of comedy with a body count. Unlike Fargo, it delivers less of the satisfaction and more of the absurd.

The Coens go way out on a farcical limb over a misplaced computer disc bearing classified data that has fallen into the hands of two inept bounty hunters with an unusual motive. Set in the hallowed streets of Washington, DC, the wild adventure interweaves the lives of its key players and their bungled overlapping agendas. And it ties up all of its pieces the way a cool 12-year-old ties his Reeboks. Loose.

Like many of the Coen films, Burn After Reading comes fully loaded with a heavy-hitting cast, including John Malkovich as Osbourne Cox, a nasty hard-drinking CIA agent, and Tilda Swinton as his overbearing wife. It also stars George Clooney and Frances McDormand, whose characters’ combined IQs give us confidence that there’s still plenty of intelligence out there for the rest of us.

But the surprise performance that makes Burn After Reading worth watching belongs to Brad Pitt as Chad, the gum-chewing bike-riding personal trainer at Hardbodies fitness center, whose storehouse of smarts dwells mainly in his biceps. Pitt indulges in the caricature that the Coens wrote especially for him, and with the help of his bad hairdo, finds his true comedic calling. William Bradley Pitt: you have arrived. Please don’t stop now.

Burn After Reading is a wild ride that has plenty going for it. The Coens didn’t need to burn this script, they just needed to tweak it. It’s original, imaginative, zany, cartoon-like and, of course, violent. It makes us laugh and shudder all the way to the edge of credibility—which is where it goes a little too far. Where we start crink­ling our foreheads and mouthing the words, “I don’t think so.” And where we start thinking that the Coens’ next movie will surely be back on top.  B-

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