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Coens, all-star cast make 'Burn After Reading' cold, yet funny

Let's assume, for a moment, that like most people on this spinningdisaster of a planet, your life is a flaming pile of garbage.

What would make it better? Popsicles? Probably. But what aboutlong-term? Training cats to ride cat-sized unicycles? Better, but eventhe most athletic cats die after 20 years or so, and then you'reright back to heartbreak. The moment I'm done here, I'm planning onfounding a kung fu motorcycle gang called the No Rules Cobras. Ihaven't hammered out the details of our organizational philosophy(poisoning people at 90 mph, probably, as well as something to do withthe importance of saffron robes), but at least I'll have createdsomething that will live on after I die under a hail of policegunfire.

Combining the strict discipline of the martial arts with the anarchicnomadery of the biker gang won't be easy, but if there's anything tobe learned from the Coen Brothers' barking dog of a new film, BurnAfter Reading, it's that shortcuts and the pursuit of unexaminedvalues usually ends in bigger tears than the day-to-day tragedy of adissatisfied life.

After angrily resigning from the CIA, John Malkovich begins writinghis memoirs, oblivious to the fact wife Tilda Swinton despises him, ischeating on him with butter-smooth George Clooney, and is preparingfor divorce.

On the advice of her lawyer, Swinton copies Malkovich's personalfiles, which promptly fall into the hands of gym employees FrancesMcDormand and Brad Pitt. McDormand, driven by her need forself-reinventing plastic surgery, and Pitt, driven by upbeat popsongs, hatch a plan: blackmail Malkovich for the state secrets theybelieve are on that disk.

Thing is, they suck at it. They have no clue what they're doing. Andthe more desperate they get, the more dangerous and chaotic theirsituation becomes.

One of the attacks on the Coen Brothers is they don't actually likepeople. I don't know where people get this idea -- Steve Buscemi waslovingly shoved into that woodchipper in Fargo -- butBurn After Reading isn't going to do much to refute thatcriticism.

Pitt's a meathead. McDormand thinks sucking four ounces of fat fromher saggy triceps will light a candle in her soul. Clooney is a serialphilanderer (though with that perfectly grayed hair and eyes thatshine like a Caribbean bay, who can blame him for taking what life hasto offer). The movie gets a Route 66's worth out of mileage from theirhilarious idiocy and full-steam-ahead incompetence that tangles theplot into a glorious mess from which escape is impossible.

But I don't think it's the characters that draw the Coens' uniquebrand of cold, violent, absurdist scorn. I think it's theirpriorities.

Maybe it's the fact that the cast is essentially perfect, an ensembledream team of such utter power that, between takes, they assembledinto a 50-foot acting-bot who blew on the sun until it dimmed enoughto permanently reverse global warming. Lesser actors might have madethese characters unbearably pathetic. These guys lend them enoughhumanity to create the impression that, if only they cared about thepeople in their lives rather than the shapeliness of their own assesor scoring with everyone within a five-mile radius, there might besome salvation.

Nope. Instead, pettiness and desperation usher them into territorythat, under the direction of just about any other filmmakers on earth,would be unsettlingly dark. For the Coens, whose affinity for pitchblackness runs so deep their grandmother must have been a bat,it's -- well, it's kinda dark even for them, especially when thebrutishly real violence shows up.

Showing the same masterful editing they perfected with No Countryfor Old Men (if not its overall impact), the Coens bear someserious satirical fangs behind their screwball comedy/thriller. Theguys are so talented it's easy to feel let down when they're merelypretty damn good. Don't be tricked. Burn After Reading may beone of their coldest movies, but it's got a clarity of vision thatonly comes from a long, deep look at what's troubling us and what, ifanything, we can do about it.

Grade: B+

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