Burn After Reading

Comedy could return Coens to Kodak stage

Focus Features

Release date: Sept. 12

For a multiple-Oscar-winning filmmaking duo lauded for their inimitable eccentricity, Joel and Ethan Coen seem to be most appreciated the further they play it straight.

That was certainly the case with last year’s Oscar-dominating “No Country for Old Men,” which critics praised for its fidelity to source material, its lack of mannerist irony or caricature, and its somber respect for human suffering — qualities that are antithetical to the bulk of the brothers’ oeuvre.

In that sense, “Burn After Reading” is something of a return to Coen form, reprising the nigh-nonsensical (yet oddly intricate) plotting, comically abrupt twists and general air of irreverent malevolence that distinguished the pair’s less prestigious, cultier pics such as “The Big Lebowski” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.”

Reversing the trajectory of most previous Coen releases, “Burn” was shrugged off by most critics, yet explosive at the box office, notching the No. 1 spot in its first week and well surpassing the $100 million mark worldwide. While that’s hardly a guarantee of Oscar success, it could hardly hurt in a year that saw a dearth of sleeper comedies.

While a repeat of last year’s directing Oscar would be an upset of Tomeian proportions, the brothers stand a good chance for a mention in the original screenplay race, in which they notched a win for “Fargo.” (They also won for their adaptation of “No Country,” and a nom for their other “adaptation,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”)

As far as acting honors go, the five thesps at the top of the cast list are all Oscar veterans (with 12 nominations and three wins among them), yet John Malkovich is a clear standout as an alcoholic spymaster whose every scene seems to be a subtle variation on the slow shift from quiet restraint to ultraprofane rage. And while they may not approach the fireworks of their climactic scene together in last year’s “Michael Clayton,” George Clooney and Tilda Swinton’s ill-suited lovers have a sort of intentional antichemistry that’s fascinating to watch and much harder to nail down than it appears onscreen.

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