“Burn After Reading”
Focus Features
At the Michigan Theater, Quality 16 and Showcase

Courtesy of Focus Features

2.5 out of 5 stars

With an election year such as this, there’s bound to be an increased interest in all things political. As People Magazine and US Weekly ditch Brangelina for McCain and Obama, and with Bristol Palin becoming this year’s Jamie Lynn Spears, Washington has become the new Tinseltown. And not surprisingly, Hollywood has found a way to capitalize on politics with upcoming films such as “Frost/Nixon” and “W.”

While “Burn After Reading” isn’t a full blown political film, both its setting and plot (which revolves around a bunch of interconnected individuals who think they’re in the know of how the political power game is played) suggest that the film is intended as a critique of today’s state of affairs. With the current administration’s bumbling response to national disasters still fresh in our minds, it’s easy to be skeptical of how things get done in D.C.

The film illustrates just how easily idiocy can run wild, thanks in no small part to the power of suggestion. The film’s large cast lends a feeling of mass anarchy. Each character is equally motivated by ambitions of varying sorts. Whether it’s raising money for plastic surgery, divorcing a spouse or just finding someone to have sex with, the motivations all seem trivial. Most unfortunately, despite their plans of grandness, none of the characters really have the brains to pull off their selfish schemes.

The film, which was heavily hyped leading up to its release, follows Joel and Ethan Coen’s equally hyped “No Country for Old Men.” However, while “No Country” gained attention despite relatively low star power — Tommy Lee Jones isn’t exactly a guaranteed box-office draw — “Burn After Reading” relies heavily on the bold-faced names. Brad Pitt (“Ocean’s Thirteen”), George Clooney (“Michael Clayton”), John Malkovich (“Beowulf”), Frances McDormand (“North Country”), Tilda Swenton (“Michael Clayton”) — they’re all great actors, but they’re also A-list celebs. It’s hard to pass up a movie that has such outstanding talent to burn.

Ultimately, the choice of actors was a wise one. Clooney does his usual “schmooze ’em or loose ’em” to varying degrees of success. He’s basically playing himself, right down to the slightly self-deprecating charm, but it’s generally appealing as always. The one true standout is Pitt, who goes against typecasting with his performance as a bike-riding fitness instructor with terribly highlighted hair. Having six children running around his French villa has taken its toll, as Pitt looks a little weary. Still, with every victory dance he performs — and there are several — he manages to steal every scene in a way that’s similar to his last great role in 2000’s “Snatch.” He’s a lovable lunkhead.

Surprisingly, the film’s faults point to the Coen Brothers. Obviously talented writers and directors, they let the movie run away with itself. The film’s final third is quickly paced, entertaining and at some points, awesomely surprising, but the rest is a whole lot of time-consuming nothing.

In the end, the film seems to be reaching to make some sort of political comment, but the ideas aren’t fully developed. By following “No Country” — a film that succeeded based on its own merit — with a film seeking recognition through star power, the Coen Brothers ended up with a film that isn’t necessarily bad, but could have been better. “Burn After Reading” can be viewed as a victim of sibling rivalry with its older brother, “No Country:” You can tell the two are related, but the youngest just can’t live up to the greatness of its senior.

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