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The Coen brothers' Burn After Reading

A country for ridiculous men

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Richard Jenkins, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand star in Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading. - PHOTO BY MACALL POLAY/ FOCUS FEATURES

Burn After Reading opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

Writer directors Joel and Ethan Coen, as The New York Times noted, haven't sold out, haven't used their quirky cult successes to smooth their way to a Harry Potter-size paycheck. Burn After Reading hearkens back to Coen classics Oh Brother Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski, films propelled inexorably forward by bizarre characters and slashing humor. The Coen brothers are a blessed genre unto themselves who (thankfully) will never fill the multiplex.

John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, a CIA agent abruptly dumped from the Balkans desk, fuming obscenely that the agency is all bureaucracy and no mission. His icy wife, Tilda Swinton, the world's most terrifying pediatrician, is conducting a passionless affair with George Clooney, a former Treasury agent with a smooth line and an addiction to online hookups. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt work at Hardbodies gym, and they stumble on a computer disc with Cox's bitter, rambling autobiography, which they fancy they can turn into some ready cash—somehow.

McDormand and Clooney are proven Coen comedians, but Pitt's blithely clueless personal trainer is the new star in their repertory firmament. The plot, with everyone screwing everyone under the looming phallic shadow of the Washington Monument (the hero's name is Cox, for crying out loud!), is clearly not a serious indictment of government intelligence leaks.

Burn After Reading depicts an irritable society, where everyone is going ballistic shrieking "What the f---?" into the telephone, at the boss, at the traffic, at their spouses and sex partners, and, futilely, at the whole world. People exercise and hydrate frantically, joylessly, the same way they have sex, and they blather about reinvention, whether someone is a "can-do" person and if they "sweat the small stuff." Like an intricate musical contraption, all the people surveilling, stalking and intriguing will cross paths. A phone call, a car, a gun or a hatchet will be wielded, as paranoia inevitably intersects with delusion.

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