The Coen brothers have gotten a great deal of mileage out of turning cinematic conventions on their heads. You could argue that they've built their careers on this strategy and their latest, Burn After Reading, not only takes this method to its furthest extreme, but winds up being the funniest Coen film since Raising Arizona. Borrowing liberally from Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, the brothers have woven an intricate tale in which a band of loons go to great extremes to secure an elusive prize, which ends up being not as valuable as they thought.
The object in question, or McGuffin for you Hitchcock fans, is a computer disk that contains the memoirs of disgraced former CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Angry over being fired, he's decided to expose as many secrets about the agency as he can. However he loses the disk at the gym where he works out and it's found by Linda (Frances McDormand). Upon being opened by her vacuous co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt), they soon hatch a blackmail plan so that she can have the cash for extensive plastic surgery. Cox gets wind of this, as does Harry (George Clooney), a federal agent who's determined to get the disk. He also happens to be having an affair with Cox's wife (Tilda Swinton) and gets involved with Linda as well.
It all becomes hopelessly convoluted, which is precisely the point, and affords the respected cast the opportunity to let their hair down and act foolish. Clooney's quite good as the lover who talks a big game with his girlfriends but knows that his real security lies at home with his family, while Malkovich is obviously having a good time going apoplectic at every turn. Frankly, I feared he'd have a stroke at any moment. Meanwhile, McDormand finds the perfect tone as the insecure Linda, while Pitt's doofus act, while initially fun, eventually wears thin. In the end, the story isn't as important here as the behavior of the characters, all of whom display a degree of myopia that allows us to see our lives with a sense of clarity. There's little intelligence on display in Burn, and that's what makes it so much fun and so pointed. It effectively points out that in our pursuit of something grand or mysterious we often forget how wonderful things really are.
In the past two weeks, there have been four films released without benefit of critic's pre-screenings. All have lived up to their studios' low expectations, both critically and at the box office. This weekend brings two more to the area, as Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys and the remake of The Women arrive. Perry's fans are among the most faithful and his movies always do well despite being held from view. However, The Women, with its cast that includes Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes and Debra Messing, among others, is an animal of different sort. This expensive studio production has all the earmarks of being a major hit, what with its cast, and coming in the wake of the successful Sex and the City film. Is Warner Brothers so sure of the film's success it doesn't need the benefit of good advance reviews? Or are they hoping for one good weekend before the word gets out? Stay tuned.