Coen brothers’ ‘Burn’ only mildly above-average

Posted Sept. 14, 2008, at 8:01 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

BURN AFTER READING, written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 96 minutes, rated R.

The new Coen brothers movie, “Burn After Reading,” isn’t what it should have been, but it’s almost what it could have been — a consistently funny farce about dumb people creating a crippling run of chaos between the CIA and a gym called Hardbodies.

There are some big, hammy laughs here — and a major twist that, for an instant, lifts the movie into the loopy stratosphere it strives to achieve throughout. But too often the movie is off-balance — it seems strained and self-aware in ways that previous Coen films haven’t.

There’s a disconnect among the actors, the directors and the script that proves, at the very least, just how difficult it is to pull off a successful screwball farce, even when you’re armed with an A-list cast assembled by the same team that developed such dark, modern-day comedy classics as “Fargo,” “The Ladykillers,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Big Lebowski” (to name a few). Of course, the Coens also wrote and directed “The Hudsucker Proxy,” so they aren’t incapable of producing the occasional misfire.

In a snapshot, the unwieldy plot: When Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA operative with alcohol and anger-management issues, is demoted for bringing those very issues into the workplace, he quits the agency in a rage and sets out to write a scathing memoir in hopes of bringing the CIA down.

Unfortunately for him, those memoirs fall into the hands of his icy wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who plans to divorce him in favor of continuing her torrid affair with Harry (George Clooney), an oversexed U.S. marshal who cruises the Internet for sex, has interesting ideas for what constitutes a sex toy, and who is married to a dull children’s book writer named Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel).

It’s when Katie inadvertently downloads onto a disc her husband’s memoirs while trying to retrieve their financial information that trouble erupts.

The disc finds its way to two half-baked employees at Hardbodies. First up is Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a power trainer with focus problems who is the biggest dumbbell in the weight room. Second is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a sketchy mess with a Quaker Oats bob who works at the same gym, but who would prefer to shape her body through the cosmetic surgery she can’t afford.

That is, until she and Chad come upon Cox’s memoirs, which they believe are filled with the sort of national secrets that could earn them plenty if they either blackmailed the easily infuriated Cox or, if that didn’t work out, sold the information to the Russians.

All of this and more simmers together in a plot that is so painstakingly intricate much of the life has been manufactured out of it. This is a movie filled with so many stupid people doing so many stupid things, the wit for which the Coens are known is spotty at best.

“Burn” isn’t a bad movie — far from it, particularly given the game performances from Pitt, McDormand, Clooney and a marvelous J.K. Simmons — but in the wake of their aforementioned films and especially after their Academy Award-winning “No Country For Old Men,” no one is going to confuse “Burn After Reading” as anything other than a mildly above-average comedy from two brothers who usually come through with a whole lot better.

Grade: B-

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

At the end of the year, when it’s time to decide which boxed Blu-ray set was the year’s best, the BBC’s “High Definition Natural History Collection” might just be the one at the top. It’s so good, it’s worth making the time to watch it twice.

Newly released on eight discs, the set includes the BBC’s acclaimed series “Planet Earth,” as well as the documentaries “Galapagos,” “Wild China” and “Ganges.” Much like the recent high-definition release of “The Pirates of the Caribbean Collection,” all have previously been released separately on Blu-ray disc, so the set is designed for those who don’t own any of the films and who might like to have them collected in one set.

It’s worth it. Each show digs into the Earth’s fantastic nooks and crannies in ways that raise questions (and awe) about how the filmmakers captured certain shots, and also which reveal just how little we still know about our planet, its inhabitants and, in the cases of “Wild China” and “Ganges,” its people.

The photography is as rich and as stunning as anything you’d expect from the BBC, which has some of the world’s finest cinematographers. You watch each show in admiration for the effort, and come away grateful for having experienced something new about the world you likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Also new on DVD is something completely different — “The Charlie Chan Collection: Vol. 5,” with Sidney Toler as Chan, the smooth Chinese sleuth you could have over for dinner or a murder, preferably the latter, though his manners certainly are good enough for the former.

Seven Toler films make up this lively set of B-movies from Fox — “Charlie Chan in Panama” (1940), “Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise” (1940), the very good “Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum” (1940), “Murder Over New York” (1940), “Dead Men Tell” (1941), “Charlie Chan in Rio” (1941) and “Castle in the Desert” (1942). The fact that all of these films were shot and released over the course of two years says it all for the production values. These movies were made on the cheap, but they’re still engaging. Now that they’re fully restored, they also almost look respectable.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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