Following their Oscar-winning triumph last year with 'No Country for Old Men,' as well as the recent (and now classic) 'Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?' and 'Fargo,' the Coen Brothers can be forgiven for wanting to have a little fun. So the slightness of their direct follow-up, the mishmash farce 'Burn After Reading,' should probably come as no surprise to anyone, and can easily be forgiven. It's like the Coen's equivalent to Steven Soderbergh's one-two punch of 'Ocean's Eleven' following 'Traffic,' only -- sadly -- 'Burn' is, if as star-studded as 'Ocean's,' nowhere near as entertaining, energetic, or substantial.
'Burn After Reading' certainly boasts the Coen's most star-studded cast yet, who are all inserted in a mosaic of modern relationships by way of a complex sorta-thriller based in the inner-offices of the CIA. To condense the plot would be pointless, other to say that we get a gang of offbeat characters rather than a single protagonist. There's Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), an alcoholic who, as the film begins, will get canned by the CIA, which leads to his uncovering of an affair between his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) and Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Then there is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and her oddball sidekick Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who stumble upon a CD of important intelligence findings. It all interweaves and interconnects, with the kind of unpredictable (and even violent) results that only the Coens can concoct.
Yes, 'Burn After Reading' is weird, and quirky, and to be fair, thematically intriguing if you peer a a little underneath its caustic veneer. That's both its greatest asset, and its greatest weakness. Veering from the far more serious concerns of films like 'No Country for Old Men,' 'Burn After Reading' recalls the Coens' cinematic souffles like 'Raising Arizona,' 'Intolerable Cruelty,' and 'The Ladykillers.' Unfortunately, I've never found the Coens quite as successful at comedy as they are at drama, and that's especially acute in 'Burn After Reading.' The film's almost slapstick visual style, mixed with the script's more perceptive human comedy, clashes with the violent rage of the Malkovich character, who essentially drives the narrative. The tone just didn't gel for me. 'Burn After Reading' is like oil and vinegar.
One also gets the impression that the cast, as impressive as it is, probably wouldn't have been attracted to the film if the Coen Brothers hadn't directed it. Most seem a bit stranded, often verging on overacting in an effort to make individual scenes work. It never feels like an organic ensemble, with everyone doing their own thing. While no single performer completely missteps -- Clooney and Swinton are particularly strong -- it still seems like everyone is just having a lark, with the Coens playing puppetmasters.
'Burn After Reading' is not a bad film, however. It has moments of genuine insight into its characters, and there are certainly a few laugh-out-loud moments. The Coens are also in full command of their visual abilities as of late, with some impressive (and often dizzying) camera tricks. But the skill and artistry that sometimes flashes on the screen only adds to the disappointment. 'Burn After Reading' ultimately rates as a very slight entry in the Coen canon, and it's hard to imagine the film ever achieving the kind of cult classic status of a 'Raising Arizona' or 'The Big Lebowski.' 'Burn After Reading' is an intriguing if ultimately flawed near-miss.
'Burn After Reading' isn't the kind of visual tour de force that usually screams great high-def. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode still offers very nice video, however, and easily does the film justice.
There is little overt stylization to the film, with much of it looking natural and film-like. There is a slight veneer of grain throughout, but otherwise the source looks very clean and slick. The color palette is a tad muted, but clean, and with accurate fleshtones. The transfer exhibits a good deal of visible detail, and fair shadow delineation. Depth is likewise good, if not spectacular. There are no overt compression artifacts or other anomalies to distract. 'Burn After Reading' looks quite nice.
Universal offers a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) for 'Burn After Reading.' It's more than adequate to meet the demands of the film's reserved sound design.
Surrounds remain largely inactive for much of the film's runtime. There are a few obvious discrete effects, and only light ambiance and score bleed. Most of the mix is front-heavy, with fairly wide stereo separation and dialogue well-anchored in the center channel. The subwoofer never gets a workout, but the subject matter hardly demands aggressive low bass. The source is nicely polished, with spacious dynamic range and no dialogue balance issues. Like the video, the audio for 'Burn After Reading' gets the job done.
Typical of most Coen Brothers titles on disc, supplements are pretty paltry. These features are so short, they barely qualify as extras. (All video materials are presented in 1080i video, with the same subtitle options as the main feature.)
'Burn After Reading' is the Coen Brothers at their slightest. I'm all for filmmakers having a little fun, but this hardly ranks as a particularly memorable (or all that funny) outing for the Oscar-winning duo. This Blu-ray is likewise a decent effort, but not spectacular. The video and audio are fine, and the extras paltry. This one is worth a rental, but leave a purchase for die hard Coen Brothers fans only.