Lukewarm reception by the critics be damned—“Burn After Reading” is a great time at the cinema, plain and simple. It’s a sharp, funny, bizarre dark comedy about despicable people operating within an even more despicable bureaucracy; a zany offering from the Coen brothers that easily earns a place in the same sentence as their previous comic masterpieces, “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo” and “Raising Arizona.” And it has a stellar cast to boot—a barrage of A-listers who breathe life and dimension into their otherwise outrageous characters. Particularly impressive are John Malkovich as a belligerent cuckold with a drinking problem and Richard Jenkins as a downtrodden gym manager suffering from a tragic case of unrequited love. Rounding out the cast are George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and J.K. Simmons.
And then there’s Brad Pitt. Pitt plays Chad Feldheimer, a dim-witted, happy-go-lucky personal trainer who enjoys biking, enthusiastically singing along to his iPod, and imbibing copious amounts of Jamba Juice. He’s an endearing idiot with frosted highlights and a deplorable fashion sense. Sounds hilarious, right?
Well, it’s not. Pitt plays his character as an over-the-top, cartoonish oaf, conspicuously devoid of nuance and subtlety in a film that features so many impressive performances from the other actors. And it’s frustrating to watch, especially when one considers the character’s potential had he been played by a more adept actor. Pitt is unable to truly inhabit the Chad character; rather, he operates as Brad Pitt acting in a comedy, seemingly always on the verge of turning and winking at the camera as if to acknowledge his commendable comedic turn against his usual leading-man type. Which is not to say that he doesn’t have funny moments, because he certainly does. It’s just that those moments are overshadowed by Pitt’s overacting as a means to mask his own self-consciousness in a role in which he doesn’t feel comfortable.
Why is Pitt incapable of comic prowess? His ineptitude inevitably stems from the fact that he’s been able to rely on his sexiness to carry him through the majority of his career. From the moment he burst onto the scene as a wayward cowboy badass in “Thelma and Louise,” to his homoerotic romp with Tom Cruise in “Interview with the Vampire,” to his relentlessly charming international bank robber in the “Ocean’s” trilogy, Pitt has maintained his reputation as a Hollywood sexy man by, well, being incredibly sexy. He can play it cool and charming so effortlessly because he is a cool and charming dude, and the majority of his film roles, even the more “legitimate” ones like his turn as Cate Blanchett’s husband in “Babel,” rely on him to display some facet of his real self. Most of the time, we fail to notice Pitt’s acting shortcomings onscreen because he’s so appealing to watch. But put him in a role where he’s stripped of his reliance on his handsomeness and the true limitations of Brad Pitt the actor will inevitably shine through.