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The Coen Brothers - Brother, thou art great

Burn After Reading

George Clooney and Tilda Swinton in Burn After Reading

As the screwball Kings of comedy, they have written, directed and produced some of Tinsel Town’s finest. Miles Fielder gets up close to the masters of mayhem, the Coen Brothers

This past year was the Coen brothers' year. Following the release to virtually universal acclaim of their strikingly lean, mean adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's violent modern-day western No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan cleaned up at the Oscars in March, winning golden statuettes for Best Film, Direction and Screenplay. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that 2007/2008 (NCFOM premiered at the Cannes Film Festival summer 2007, where and when it was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or) was a watershed 12 months for the Coen brothers. Outstanding as their last film was, the boys a have a very welcome habit of outdoing their previous finest achievements - Fargo outdid Miller's Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou? topped The Big Lebowski, No Country overshadowed The Man Who Wasn't There -- so there's no reason why they shouldn't continue the trend with their next film, the comic crime caper Burn After Reading.

Set in modern-day New York, it stars gorgeous George Clooney (who previously appeared in the Coens' O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty) and buff Brad Pitt (here breaking his Coen cherry) as, respectively, a fitness freak federal marshal and an unscrupulous gym instructor. When Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer chances upon the tell-all memoirs of CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) he attempts to blackmail the spook with them. Being a Coen brothers film, of course, things go anything but according to plan, and before you can say ‘top secret’ Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer and Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) are involved with the scam, and, apparently, each other.

The endless webs of intrigue and cascade of bad coincidences that synopsis suggests sound par for the course in a Coen brothers film. For his part, Clooney has admitted he was baffled by the plot of what he understands is a “dark spy comedy”. Apparently, when he asked Joel and Ethan (who are collectively known on set as The Two-Headed Director) what it was all about they just laughed at him. ‘I tell the Coens that I don't understand it, and they go, “Yeah... heh, heh, heh”. I seem to play another idiot,’ says Clooney, who’s played nothing but idiots for the Coens, ‘who is having an affair with Tilda Swinton.’

Burn After Reading, which had it premiere at the Venice Film Festival last month and which is released in the UK next month, has enough going for it to make it a memorable addition to the brothers' impressive resume (which, we should remind ourselves, is not spotless -- see the ill-advised Ladykillers remake). For a start, it's an original screenplay, which is always a good sign. Second, it features a great supporting cast of Coen regulars, Francis McDormand (wife of Joel), Richard Jenkins (Oscar-feted star of The Visitor) and JK Simmons (J Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films) among them. Third, it derives humour from mishap, which is a staple of Coen brothers films. And forth, all the characters have supremely daft names.
Promising as all that sounds, that's not all, folks. The Coens have got up to four more films are set to go into production in 2009: Suburbicon, The Serious Man, Hail Caesar, and a remake of the 1966 Michael Caine heist movie Gambit, which is most likely to be their next project. So, next year could be the Coen brothers’ year as well as this and as well as the last. Phew!


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