[Screen It]

(2008) (George Clooney, Frances McDormand) (R)

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Comedy: Fitness center employees' attempts to blackmail an ex-CIA agent go awry and end up involving more people than expected.
Linda Litzke (FRANCES McDORMAND) is a middle-aged employee of a fitness center who believes she needs plastic surgery and thus is dismayed that her insurance company won't cover the costs. While her boss, Ted Treffon (RICHARD JENKINS), thinks she's perfect and covertly longs for her, Linda's dimwitted coworker, Chad Feldheimer (BRAD PITT), supports her decision as well as her recent foray into online dating.

One of the men she ends up seeing is federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (GEORGE CLOONEY) who's not only married to Sandy (ELIZABETH MARVEL), a children's book author, but is also having an affair with pediatrician Katie Cox (TILDA SWINTON). She's unhappily married to Osborne Cox (JOHN MALKOVICH) who's just quit being an agent with the CIA after having his role reduced and is now writing his memoirs.

When a disc containing some of his cryptic information is discovered in the fitness center, Linda and Chad conspire to return it to him for a reward, but he doesn't know what they're talking about. From that point on and as they try to find a high bidder and Harry thinks he's being followed, the various characters' midlife crises and affairs collide in ways they couldn't have imagined.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
There are bad ideas and then there are really bad ideas, and they come and go through all stages of many people's lives. Many occur when hormonal changes take effect and/or when one senses that half of their life has passed them by and they're not getting any younger.

Such midlife crises can often equal or even outdo the distracted stupidity of adolescent urges, often in the form of the likes of extravagant splurges, cosmetic surgery and/or affairs. While such acts might make such people feel better in the moment, they often ultimately end up being viewed as boneheaded moves in hindsight.

Some people seem to have the ability to sense that troubling condition right away, such as Hardbodies Fitness Center manager Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins). When his employees -- middle-aged Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and her younger and goofily dimwitted coworker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) -- discover a CD containing cryptic files and numbers that seem to belong to someone important, Ted nervously backs off and mumbles that nothing good can come of this (although he's somewhat blinded by his secret love for her).

Of course, little does he realize that once they discover who that disc belongs to -- a former CIA agent (John Malkovich) who's recently quit and is now writing his memoirs -- they plan on blackmailing him in order to raise money for Linda's planned plastic surgery.

You see, she's just started diving into the online dating pool and, coupled with needing to look good at the gym for work, thinks she needs a makeover, especially for guys such as Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). He's a married federal marshal and apparent casual sex addict who's been cheating on his wife with a pediatrician (Tilda Swinton) who just so happens to be married to that CIA agent.

Yes, the tangled web has been woven, and while it might sound a bit like an over-exaggerated soap opera tale (which it is), the fact that it comes from the hands of the brotherly filmmaking team of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen means that everything is going to be okay.

At least for the viewer, that is, as many of the ruthless people in their varied films often don't experience or live to see a happily ever after conclusion. Not that that's the point of this semi-blackened comedy that's about as goofy and light as they come (especially compared to their last effort, "No Country For Old Men"), but does go down fairly easily and entertainingly as it unfolds and then folds back on itself and then some.

The admirable thing about the Coens is that they add enough flourishes -- be that in the script with bits of dialogue, character nuances or their habitual choice of employing unusual names, or with their direction and shot selection, etc. -- to make even their lesser and certainly less serious efforts stand out from the crowd.

While this isn't Oscar worthy material (and obviously wasn't intended to be), it easily could have been yet another failed black comedy where the material, no matter the effort, just didn't work in generating laughs from unsavory characters and/or material. Although this offering isn't a laugh-a-minute experience and the satire isn't always as inspired as I might have liked to have seen, I enjoyed the pic while watching it, which is more than I can say for most other releases.

Some may see the filmmakers slumming it a bit with this offering, but part of the fun of watching it is that the cast -- and thus by default, the Coens -- seem to be having a blast with the material, including going over the top at times with their characters. Thankfully, their decision to make a film about bad choices didn't turn out that way for them and/or their viewers. "Burn After Reading" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed September 9, 2008 / Posted September 12, 2008

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