I don’t know how they’ve seen it already when the Venice Film Festival starts its opening ceremony at 7pm local time this evening (8pm to us in the UK) and, according to its site, the movie is showing AFTER that. Anyhoo UK newspapers The Times and The Guardian both have four star reviews up already. Guess they showed it early… Here they are…
“Joel and Ethan Coen call upon a heavyweight cast of regular collaborators (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins) and newcomers to the Coen repertory group (Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton) for their follow-up to the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men. And then the brothers gleefully despatch half of their stars in a hail of bullets and blunt weapons.
This is the Coens’ first self-penned original screenplay since The Man Who Wasn’t There in 2001, and it has in common with some of their earlier pictures, specifically Raising Arizona and Fargo, a savagely comic taste for creative violence and a slightly mocking eye for detail. It also shares with these films one of the Coen Brothers preferred themes: that of inept criminals, or more specifically the ordinary Joe who thinks he or she can pull off one ingenious heist that will turn their luck around.
It’s hard to think of anyone less suited to a life of crime than Pitt’s character Chad. Most toddlers have better extortion skills. Chad is a bouncing puppy of a man; a fitness trainer at Hard Bodies gym and the best buddy of fellow Hard Bodies employee Linda (McDormand). Linda has an aching loneliness inside which she attempts to fill with unrewarding hook ups on internet dating sites and the dream of a new life bought through extensive cosmetic surgery. But all the butt-sculpting and face-stretching that she requires comes at a price, so when the gym cleaner finds a disk that appears to contain what Chad describes as “top secret sensitive shit”, Linda scents the chance of a windfall and Chad skips happily along beside her.
The disk in fact contains the whiskey-sodden ramblings that former CIA agent Osbourne Cox (Malkovich, who ties with Pitt for the film’s funniest performance) considers to be the beginnings of his memoir. Cox is struggling from the wreckage of a motorway pile-up of personal crises – he has quit his job, his wife (Swinton, delivering her lines with a scrotum-shrivelling ferocity) is tired of him and two imbeciles are trying to blackmail him. Little does Cox know but his wife is having an affair with a man he despises: married family friend and federal marshal Harry (Clooney). And in a coincidence that only the Coen brothers are audacious enough to pull off, Harry is also seeing Linda, having met her while sleazing around internet dating sites.
Carter Burwell’s brilliant score is the most paranoid piece of film music since Quincy Jones’s neurotic soundtrack for The Anderson Tapes – it’s particularly well-judged as it brings a gravity to a collection of characters who we could otherwise dismiss as numbskulls and nincompoops. The attention to detail is impeccable: the Coens can even raise a laugh with something as simple as a well-placed photograph of Vladimir Putin (the Russian Prime Minister gazes down from wall at Pitt and McDormand with the murderous expression of a tiger shark about to chew its way through a mouth full of particularly stupid herrings).
If the film does lack something, it’s warmth. The affection you felt from the Coens for the misguided fools in Fargo or Raising Arizona is lacking here for everyone except Jenkins’ hapless and hopelessly love sick gym manager. And while the film carries the audience with its entertaining, if somewhat ludicrous, blend of high level espionage and ab-toning exercises, it would perhaps be more rewarding if we could like the characters as well as laugh at them.-
The film itself may be a bit of an afterthought down here on the Lido. Clocking in at a crisp 95 minutes, Burn After Reading is a tightly wound, slickly plotted spy comedy that couldn’t be in bigger contrast to the Coens’ last film, the bloodsoaked, brooding No Country for Old Men. Burn, in comparison, is bit of a bantamweight: fast moving, lots of attitude, and uncorking a killer punch when it can.
Set in Washington DC, at the heart of America’s political establishment, it moves in four directions at the same time. Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) is a superannunated CIA analyst who is given the push and rancorously starts writing his memoirs. A computer disc containing his alarming-sounding background material falls out of a bag in a gym locker-room, where it ends up in the gormless clutches of Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) who run the place; their instant reaction is to try a little blackmail. The cosmetic surgery-obsessed Litzke is also scouring internet dating sites and starts something with serial adulterer Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who has an unspecified job in the Treasury dept, but is overly proud of his past in “PP” (that’s “personal protection” to the likes of us). But he is already having an affair with Cox’s wife Katie (Swinton) – and it’s the latter’s sneaky investigation of her husband’s financial resources as she gears up for a divorce that triggers the whole information-loss plot-thread.
With such a profusion of attention-grabbing performers, it’s hardly surprising that the first narrative motor – the fools-after-money trope of which the Coens appear so fond – is swiftly subordinated to backstabbing emotional shenanigans; we soon find ourselves watching a particularly murderous account of marital high-jinks among moneyed social elites. (In this regard, the Coen film it most resembles is the divorce-lawyer comedy Intolerable Cruelty.) It’s also stuffed with the usual throwaway brilliancies: McDormand, for example, has a running gag with a computerised switchboard that can’t recognise she is speaking English, while Swinton does a very subtle bit of eye-acting to suggest she’s actually turned on by the thought of rooting through her husband’s bank records. Pitt, in fact, gets the best of the funny stuff, but has by some way the least screen time of all the principal cast.
Where does this film leave the Coens? Their unique position, as darlings of both the Hollywood set and the festival circuit, is unchanged. What they have managed to come up with here, somehow, is a light-as-fluff flipside to hardcore “insider” films like All the President’s Men, Michael Clayton or, indeed, The Insider: it paints the powers-that-be as goofy, chaotic and definitively non-sinister. This lot, you feel, couldn’t bug their way out of a paper bag.
Burn After Reading may also go down as arguably the Coens’ happiest engagement with the demands of the Hollywood A-list – but this bit of career development may also be contributing to a diminishing of their particular film-making strengths. Or perhaps they are simply evolving. The highly-wrought grotesqueries with which they made their name seem well in the past; stars find it difficult to merge with the scenery. For better or worse, their films are now more simply natural to look at and experience. Whether it will pay off again at the Oscar ceremony or box-office remains to be seen.- Andrew Pulver, The Guardian”