Oscar darlings Joel and Ethan Coen have long been served by such successes and their cult-worshipped films. The ability to cash in commercially with mainstream success and simultaneously court critics is an enviable position for any creative visionary, but it’s a balance that always proves hard to keep on the level.
The Coens have wobbled before, most notably with “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers.” The pair’s latest, “Burn After Reading,” similarly teeters, but doesn’t quite tumble. It tracks the interaction of several unlikely characters whose dynamics and decisions careen off each other, pooling and spiraling into even more unlikely situations and scenarios.
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is an intelligence agent recently ousted from his CIA post. Dour, but determined to use the downtime to write a memoir, some of his notes are left at a local gym, falling into the hands of two employees “ personal trainer Chad (Brad Pitt) and sad, single Linda (Frances McDormand) “ who blackmail an increasingly erratic Cox and threaten to sell the notes to Russians.
“Burn” should have been a lot wilder of a ride, but the tedious script offsets hilarious performances. Malkovich is always fun to watch, a fact that the Coens misuse in the film, centering his dialogue mostly around saying some variation of “fuck.” Pitt plays Chad perfectly, and McDormand dials in a wonderfully erratic Linda.
Coen diehards are likely to be satisfied with “Burn,” which delivers plenty of scripted insanity and quotes worth rehashing, but the brothers are capable of more.