Burn After Reading (2008)

(In theaters, September 2008) Dark comedies are a tough, tough assignment, and if the Coen Brothers have been able to do the genre full justice before, they’ve also had a few misfires along the way, and Burn After Reading skirts particularly close to that edge. Among the film’s biggest problem is a sudden turn for deadly violence after a first half that promises nothing more serious than bloodied noses. It’s a jarring misstep in what is otherwise an absurd story of adulterous urban professionals who just happen to work in intelligence operations. The rest of the film is hit-and-miss, more often amusing rather than frankly funny. All of the actors, from Brad Pitt to George Clooney to Tilda Swinton to John Malkovich, seem to have a lot of fun inhabiting seriously flawed characters. (Indeed, one of the film’s highlight is the precise way Malkovich’s characters enunciates his colorful threats and insults.) The film’s two funniest scenes both star J.K. Simmons as an Intelligence Director completely mystified by the accumulation of transgressions and violence that characterize the film. Otherwise, though, the film ends quickly and with a succession of off-screen developments. There’s little satisfaction here for those who like well-wrapped narratives, nor those who prefer more conventional comedies.

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