Despite all-star cast, “Burn After Reading” lacks spark

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September 16, 2008

5:03 PM

Quirky is the expectation when it comes to the Coen Brothers, so it should come as no surprise that the duo chose to follow up their scary-grim, Academy Award-winning “No Country for Old Men” with the lighthearted spy movie parody “Burn After Reading.”

As far as shifts in tone go, it’s not exactly following up “Titanic” with “Eurotrip,” but it’s close. Based on the film’s fast-moving, two-minute trailer, and the conventional wisdom leading up to the film’s release, the moviegoer is set up for a laugh-a-minute comedy. It is for this reason that the movie falls short of viewer expectations.

The film’s shortcomings certainly do not lie in the performances of its A-List cast. George Clooney (as the neurotic nymphomaniac Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (as the plastic surgery-obsessed Linda Litzke) and John Malkovich (as haggard victim of circumstances Osborne Cox) all deliver great performances. It is Brad Pitt’s rendition of goofball personal trainer Chad Feldheimer, however, that steals the show.

Feldheimer, who backs himself into blackmailing Cox for the return of a CIA data disc along with the equally hapless Litzke, carries the movie in its early stages with his non-stop dancing and too-perfect dialogue scenes with Cox. His energy is so contagious that the remaining scenes without him feel empty by comparison.

Despite some criticism to the contrary, the film’s complex plot flows along smoothly. The Coen brothers lay the spy-movie references on thick, featuring overly ominous music, scrolling high-tech typewriter fonts and shots of black dress shoes clapping against the CIA’s white corridors. As much as it parodies espionage movies, the film also mocks Washington culture itself, poking fun at a town filled with exercised-crazed government types and undercover spy look-alikes.

It’s not fair to say that “Burn After Reading” is not worth seeing, because it is, but it certainly does leave something to be desired. The setup is so perfect and the snippets of humor so well done that the audience’s appetite is whetted for more, and then left disappointed. Just when the movie feels as though the wheels are going to spin off and lead us into complete comedy bliss, that dream comes to an abrupt end, and the movie shuffles to the finish line.

‘Burn’ is likely a film that gets better with second and third viewings, but it doesn’t look like it will have the lasting impact that the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski” did 10 years ago, or perhaps even what ‘No Country’ will have in the near future. The film’s one hope of an iconic character is Pitt’s Feldheimer, but his lack of screen time leaves the audience wanting so much more.

They could’ve used a few more laughs, too.

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