‘Reading’ is fun and mental

 

I can envision moviegoers exiting “Burn After Reading” with the same befuddlement some have stated upon witnessing Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.”

In fact, the directors are gracious enough to have one of the characters (a hilariously deadpan J.K. Simmons) say it for them: “So just what have we learned from all this?”

His fellow C.I.A. officer squirms and kind of shrugs.

I could sense the audience grumbling in agreement.

But I could not join my fellow patrons in their dissatisfaction, for “Reading” was as unexpected, meandering, and precision-crafted as any of the brothers’ comedic outputs. And it was a hell of a lot of fun.

 

In fact, if I may commit an act of heresy amidst my fellow film-loving friends, I had more enjoyable time here than on my initial viewing of “The Big Lebowski.”

 

While it may fall in the middle of the Coens comedic library (wedged above “The Hudsucker Proxy” and slightly below “Fargo” — with “Raising Arizona” being the pinnacle, and “The Ladykillers the nadir), it’s worth it if only for the inspired insanity they allow from their cast, better known for its dramatic endeavors.

 

Those who seek sleek narrative construction in a Coen Brothers film are more likely to find an Oscar on the shelf of Larry The Cable Guy. For they have spent the latter part of their careers rearranging the blocks of structure, repeatedly flipping the bird to cinematic expectations.

 

They make it clear that in “Reading” we are not entering the world in which you and I dwell. It is far distanced from the harsh realism that soaked “No Country.” Sure, they look like humans we may recognize, but they are more akin to live-action cartoons.

 

John Malkovich plays an uptight C.I.A. Desk monkey named Osbourne Cox who is unceremoniously dumped from his rather slight job within the agency. In a profanity-filled tantrum, he stomps out, threatening to burn things to its foundation with a scathing tell-all. Unfortunately, Cox is but a mere Dilbert-esque drone whose words ring rather hollow to an indifferent employer.

 

Things are no better at home, either. His zamboni of a wife (Tilda Swinton) icily plows over his every statement, paving over it with her own dilemmas, like, did he pick up the right cheese for the evening’s dinner party. She wants things picture-perfect, for one of the guests in Harry Pfarrer (played by George Clooney), a married, philandering Treasury employee proud of the fact that he’s never fired his gun in 20 years of service and an apparent connoisseur of hardwood floors.

 

As their affair deepens, Cox’s wife secretly begins amassing information from her husband’s various accounts to hand over to her divorce lawyer. The information is compiled on a compact disc that gets left on the floor of Hardbodies Gym, which had the misfortune of having Chad Feldheimer (played by Brad Pitt) and Linda Lidzke (played by Frances McDormand) as employees.

 

Chad, with hair piled high like an encroaching tidal wave, gets it into his whiffle-ball-like head that this disc’s owner must be really important because there are lots of numbers and codes and stuff located within (to Chad, a disc of Sudoku puzzles would be equally confusing). Linda, who longs for a series of expensive plastic surgeries to battle time is more than happy to be his accomplice in trying to extort cash for the found information.

 

The series of events that unfold are, at turns, hysterical, violent (sometimes simultaneously), irreverent and irrelevant.

 

It’s the enthusiasm in which each actors attacks his or her role that stokes “Reading’s” flames. McDormand is so caught up in her attempts at vanity, she’s blind to a fellow employee who not-so-subtly longs for her; Clooney successfully hides his striking features under a number of obnoxious tics and crippling paranoia; Malkovich is at his arrogant best, referring to his self-indulgent musings of life at the agency as his phonetically correct “mem-wah.”

 

But from the moment he bops onto the screen about 20 minutes into the picture, there is no mistaking that this is Pitt’s picture. When confined to such dramatic mush as “Seven Years in Tibet,” “Meet Joe Black” and “Legends of the Fall,” the actor can come off as a stilted mannequin, hired more for marquee value. But throughout his career, in smaller roles such as “True Romance,” and “12 Monkeys” when he’s able to let his freak flag fly, Pitt’s a comedic tsunami. Nowhere is it more evident than in “Reading.”

 

Chad is a man so blissfully unaware of just how over his head he is when he hatches his plot, it’s surprising that he even remembers to wear pants in public.

 

What you may not find in “Reading” is something that neatly wraps up it’s tale in a traditional fashion. For some, this will be unforgivable, but for those who happily vibe along with the cast until, quite literally, the book is closed on this tale, they will find the eccentric comedy is just the right shade of black.

~ by usesoapfilm on September 15, 2008.

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