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THE COEN BROTHERS' LOVE OF IDIOSYNCRASY IS AT ITS BEST IN THIS AMERICA-SKEWERING FARCE By Armond White The Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading is a pie-in-the-face comedy. You don't know what hit you until it's over. Every character is nervous, and the story's pace is frantic. Georgetown political wonk Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job at the CIA and goes home for another drink. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) ignores his problems, preferring the company of spy and sex addict Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Next to these Beltway politicos, in the parallel universe of the privately owned Hard Bodies Fitness Center, secretary Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) plans undergoing extensive plastic surgery in place of aerobics. She disregards flattery from her boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) and shares her dreams with the airhead trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). None of these eccentrically named characters are likable, and yet each one embodies a familiar plaint. It's like finding the current American condition unexpectedly reflected in a funhouse mirror. You may first resist the forced archness (an all-star, Oscar-rich cast cavorting like they don't know any better), but something's poignant in all this anarchy-even though the Coens never go for pathos. Expert satirists, the Coens leave modern absurdity in suspension. Burn After Reading pulls an enormously bold switcheroo: It evades the title's implied political parody-that hideous Borat shtick of laughing at others-to suggest that the most ridiculous, laughable Americans are ourselves. Clooney and Pitt gamble on alienating their Ocean's 11-12-13-ad infinitum fans by playing greedy, unglamorous characters. Instead, they're situated in the center of national policy and political decision making. Pussy hound Harry jogs past the spherical Jefferson Memorial, and Linda goes cruising for men within sight of the phallic Washington Monument. The personal isn't only made political, the political is reduced to what's pulchritudinous. In this way, Burn After Reading's sex/money farce illustrates a condition (our present political circumstance) in which humans inhabit an egocentric universe. The Coens' love of idiosyncrasy is close to Altman's. They don't suggest that life is meaningless (such details as Linda enduring the same inane movie for first dates illustrate her desperate determination); rather, they understand how people extract value from their lives. The heedless chase after easy gratification (Osborne ignores his problems through alcohol; everyone else seeks some form of anesthetic) hastens the occurrence of irrational, sometimes deadly, incidents. Burn After Reading might have been designed to answer those fools who refused to appreciate the heartfelt, spiritual dimension of No Country For Old Men but preferred to misinterpret it as nihilistic. That these characters, throughout the many money- and sex-grubbing shenanigans, lack good reason or sound judgment is the Coens' private joke on film culture's current love of nihilism. (Remember how the Coens' ridiculed those art-pseuds The Nihilists in The Big Lebowski?) Lesser artists would have followed a critical smash like No Country with another noir, courting audience favor through familiarity. But Burn After Reading, though shocking, is simply the flipside of the Coens' existential dread (which goes back to Blood Simple and their antic script for Sam Raimi's hilarious 1985 Crimewave). Here, various forms of treachery and self-deception are distilled in comedy-tragedy translated [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Brad Pitt in BURN AFTER READING"][/caption] into farce. I submit that the Coens have progressed beyond the half-parody/half-horror of Fargo. Their subsequent work has become deeper and has gained more feeling. While Burn After Reading's style recalls the frenetic Raising Arizona, this story's shift toward middle-class characters is significant. Instead of working-class condescension, these D.C. buffoons carry national import. The Coens don't do bandwagon political humor. That explains the left field (not left-wing) rural American cultural survey of O Brother Where Art Thou?; the counterculture's decline in Lebowski; and the jocular view of race and politics that distinguished their sumptuous remake of The Ladykillers. Here, the Coens reject Bush-bashing jokes on the CIA; they know that recent political resentment has destroyed liberal empathy, so they carefully connect the government's organizational folly to common human foible. Their wonks' complaints about "all bureaucracy, no mission" is universally understood; it completes the connection Robert De Niro attempted in his underrated CIA drama The Good Shepherd. Harry and Linda's pillow talk on American-flag bed linen underscores the point. Each character practices self-justification. Their defensive utterances ("Sometimes there's a higher patriotism." "I am an American citizen, and I will not take this kind of treatment.") reveal our true politics. When Linda and Chad try blackmailing Osborne, then broker a deal with the Russian embassy (thinking in old, Cold War terms), they are questioned: "You are not ideological?" It posits a word most citizens don't understand. Burn Before Reading domesticates the espionage thriller as a sly jest, but it's done in order to laugh at the foolishness of non-ideological behavior. Linda's blackmail note is degraded as "drivel" and her arrogant response, "Dribble?" is a classic Coen-Sturges gaffe. This might be obnoxious if the Coens and co-conspirators didn't give it their all. Clooney's always best with the Coens but submits himself to parody, enacting a Tom Selleck-y lothario. It's flabbergasting to see how many true notes are struck in characterizations just short of exaggeration: to watch McDormand's fierce entitlement, just like Rasputia's in Norbit; to note Malkovich's perfectly crazed self-righteousness; to see Tilda Swinton's severity in a bright-orange bob that gives her an uncanny resemblance to David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth; to watch Brad Pitt submerge into a jock so mindless he isn't even vain. Referred to as a "League of Morons, representing the idiocy of today," these are the least self-conscious comic performances-human empathy by able clowns. It was annoying to see the Coens' praised for the violence in No Country. The media celebrated psychopath Anton Chigurh as if Tommy Lee Jones' countervailing compassionate performance didn't exist. Here, the Coens treat death discreetly, but it's never entertainment; put into a political, moral context, it stings. As the camera pulls back from the wildly interwoven social cartoons and inevitable human chaos, the film goes from micro to macro-a God's-eye point of view so detailed yet all-encompassing that you don't know if God is laughing or crying. -- Burn After Reading Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Running time: 96 min. --

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