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burnafterreading2One of the big buzz films from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival was No Country for Old Men from directors Joel and Ethan Coen.  After going on to win a load of Academy Awards they returned to TIFF this year but with a much different kind of film. Burn After Reading is a crime caper film that has more to do with their previous films like Raising Arizona than the dark feel of No Country. They call it the third paret of their “idiot trilogy” which began with O Brother Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty.

Set in Washington DC, the film, which stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton, sees a disk containing the memoirs of bitter ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) falling into the hands of two greedy gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand) who attempt to sell it, first to Cox then to the Russians. Their plot has far reaching effects, complicating not only their lives but that of philandering Treasury Department employee Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) and his mistress, Cox’s wife Katie (Swinton).

Burn After Reading comes with high expectations. The Coens made their name mixing off-beat comedy with crime stories; Fargo was an Academy Award winner, Raising Arizona redefined quirky and The Big Lebowski is a cult classic. Add to that pedigree an all star cast ripe with Oscar winners and tabloid favorites and you have the makings of a classic Coen Brothers film, right?

Unfortunately the answer is “no.”

Burn After Reading has moments of greatness—Pitt makes goofy look good, Swinton is icy perfection and J.K. Simmons as the head of the CIA walks away with the movie—but is less than the sum of its parts.

I know I am about to commit film critic heresy, but I found the film’s overly clever story left me cold. Fargo and Raising Arizona succeeded because the Coens made the audience feel empathy for the lovable—and sometimes not so lovable—losers that populated those films. Burn After Reading, on the other hand, has contempt for all its characters. They are all awful people who more or less deserve their respective fates. What’s lacking is warmth. What’s lacking is compassion. What’s lacking is the magical Coen Brothers touch.

Burn After Reading isn’t a waste of time, but it is middling Coen Brothers. 

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