Release Date: September 12
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney,
Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich
Studio/Run time: Focus Features,
The title of the new film from the Coen
brothers instructs us to “burn after reading,” but that won't be
necessary. The whole thing vanishes in a puff of sauna steam the
second the credits begin to roll.
Speed RacerThe story feels like Blood Simple
transplanted from rural Texas to Washington, DC. Joel and Ethan Coen
have replaced the drawling juke-joint employees of their debut
feature with CIA agents and personal trainers, but the characters are
involved in the same sort of overly complicated schemes that are
concocted to squeeze money out of people. Of course, they end up
squeezing blood instead.
It goes like this: a pair of gym
workers (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) stumble onto what they
think is important information belonging to a spy (John Malkovich)
whose wife (Tilda Swinton) is sleeping with a state department
employee (George Clooney) who is also sleeping with McDormand's
character. The script chases its tail for an hour and a half and then
conks out, tired and strangely satisfied with its catch.
There is an old TV commercial for a
synthetic, bacon-shaped dog snack in which someone's pet would leap
excitedly at the site of the box. "Dog's don't know it's not
bacon!" said the ad's bemused voice. The Coens treat their human characters
the same way, but making adults circle around a worthless CD-ROM
found on the floor of a fitness center requires an accumulation of
stupidity. And even if our expectations have shrunk enough to fit
into the groove of a brewing fiasco, we still expect a funny climax. In Burn After Reading, it never arrives.
You can't blame the actors, even though
their energetic performances don't harmonize very well. Malkovich and
Swinton are as icy and angry as ever, but Pitt, McDormand and Clooney
are acting like they're in a Monty Python sketch. They're playing
quirks instead of characters: Pitt bounces in his car like he just
stepped out of an exercise video, McDormand mispronounces "drivel"
as "dribble," and Clooney perpetually twitches and blinks.
In the Coens hierarchy of intelligence, Pitt's character
sarcastically makes fun of everybody else even as the Coens are
making fun of him.
The pointlessness of the whole project
makes you wonder if the Coens, conscious of how hard it would be to
follow their flawed but provocative Oscar winner, No Country for
Old Men, decided to write one in their sleep. Or maybe they found
an unfinished screenplay on the floor of their gym, produced it with
A-list actors, and figured out how to squeeze money from all of us.