Burn After Reading
Though it doesn’t look like the Zapper for Duck Hunt, he looks a little like the dog.

Theatrical Release Date: 09/12/2008
Directors: Ethan & Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

Tired of the same old spy thriller where the ultra-capable hero must gather intel on the enemy, escape their clutches and thereby save the world from some nefarious plot? Good, because so are the Coen brothers and with “Burn After Reading”, they’ve delivered a masterful, satyric take on the genre that paints the “intelligence” community with the same nimwit brush most of us have used with the rest of the government.

In the film, John Malkovich (Malkovich, Malkovich) is a CIA analyst pushed out of the Agency, in a doomed marriage and ready to write his memoirs about his long career. Cue in some bumbling idiots from the local gym (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who happen upon some of his writings and think it’s top secret spy stuff. From there, it’s a whirlwind of paranoia, stupidity and more paranoia.

The cast of characters is wide and diverse, though they all seem to share the same inability to use common sense and jump to the most absurd conclusions with just about everything. The Coens use their talented cast to paint Washington D.C. as paranoia central (no argument here) and are able to shape that neurotic energy into a very funny and clever romp. This really is the most fun I’ve had in the theater since “Step Brothers” (though this is a far better “film”)

While the Coens’ last project, “No Country for Old Men“, garnered all the critical acclaim (which I didn’t quite agree with to that degree), one thing I did agree on was their command of the cinematic art form. Here, they have managed to craft a spot-on satire of the spy thriller genre, from the opening credits right until the end. Even in the midst of wacky and oddball characters acting like complete idiots, the framework of the film is built like something Robert Ludlum would have written. I very much expect a screenwriting nomination at the very least for the Coens on this one.

I can only imagine that this was released so far ahead of the traditional awards season fare in order to manage to deliver the DVD right as the voting ballots for the Academy are sent out. This little trick seems to be en vogue these days (sadly, it worked for “Crash“).

The acting, as one would expect, is great all around. All of the star-studded cast seem to revel in the ability to read good material, be directed by talented people and share the screen with other excellent actors. While no one delivers the knockout punch that each has had in the past with previous films, the beauty in their performances is that it is a true ensemble piece – where the whole is greater than the parts. (And Clooney’s character’s adventure into hobby building provides one of the most unexpected and hilarious moments of the year.)

With nothing of worth is generally released this time of year, as it is a dumping ground for studios while they prepare for the mid-November push of hopeful Oscar winners and box office spectacles, it’s nice that there’s at least one good film around to tide us over until the swarm of crappy comedies and slasher flicks has dissipated.

“Burn After Reading” is a must see for fans of the Coen brothers and anyone looking for a witty twist on the espionage genre, all thrown in with absurd and sometimes dark or perverse humor. I’m giving it a strong 4 out of 5 and can only hope that when the DVD does come around, that there are some good commentary tracks and behind the scenes features because when a film coalesces as well as this one did, it must mean the journey and process to make it was something well worth discovering.

Get your butts in the seats, people. As long as you can appreciate absurdity and the talent it takes to tweak a genre in all the right ways, this one’s worth your money and time. Now if the Coens could only hold workshops for the other directors releasing films this month … then maybe finding a good movie this time of year wouldn’t be like winning your company’s lottery to park in the CEO’s spot for a month … I just have no luck, I tell you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to fill a water bottle and pack some clothes so I can hike over to my car.