There’s no new column at MSN this week but there are new DVDs, which I have anticipated and included in the two-week column currently up on MSN Entertainment. There’s also something a little different about the Christmas Week releases, which are almost exclusively limited to 2008 features: most of them were actually released on December 21, a Sunday, presumably to give businesses a few extra days to sell and/or rent the discs before Christmas.
The highlight of the limited release week is the Coen Bros. Burn After Reading, one of their more playful projects, much lighter and significantly slighter than their previous film, the dark, Oscar-winning thriller No Country For Old Men, but put together with such perfection that you can’t help but be won over. Who else but the Coens could get away with a comedy where a major character is violently, messily killed.
George Clooney is the ostensible lead as a charmingly glib and very married Federal Marshal whose job never seems to interfere with his numerous affairs, but France McDormand drives the ensemble comedy as a desperately single woman determined to get a plastic surgery makeover at any cost. Her motives aren’t exactly pure of heart – she just wants money for some cosmetic surgery that she can’t understand why her HMO won’t cover – and her obsessive drive to get money at any costs leaves a lot of collateral damage. Her plan revolves around a computer disc of what she believes are state secrets (they are actually the romanticized memoirs of a deluded low level CIA agent, played to perfection by John Malkovich with a blank expression meant to look incredulous but actually makes him look like a doofus) and her efforts to sell them to the highest bidder. The characters all think they’re involved in an espionage caper and the Coens direct it with a straight face, not playing punchlines as much as letting the absurdity arise from the disconnect between the sober stylistics and the utterly ridiculousness of their shenanigans.
After the darkness of “No Country For Old Men,” the Coen Brothers eased up with this deadpan espionage farce played out by small fish convinced that they are in deep waters…. It may be a lark but it is pitch perfect and the performances are priceless, from John Malkovich as a doofus CIA vet with delusions of adequacy to Brad Pitt as a cheerfully idiotic personal trainer.