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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Oct. 22

Body of Lies, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist among titles

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BODY OF LIES Despite Russell Crowe's shared marquee billing, this is really Leonardo DiCaprio's film, as the young thespian handles the part of Roger Ferris, a compassionate CIA point man working in the Middle East under the jaded eye of his ruthless superior (Crowe) back in the U.S. Hoping to track down a bin Laden-like terrorist (a menacing Alon Aboutboul) responsible for a series of attacks on America and its allies, Ferris ends up traveling to Jordan and entering into a terse relationship with Hani Salaam (Stardust's Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence. The film's best scenes are between DiCaprio and Strong, as their characters alternate between working together and keeping each other at arm's length. Better than the vast majority of the post-9/11 terrorist yarns, Body of Lies is both more ambiguous and ambitious than such heavy-handed duds as Rendition and Redacted. Director Ridley Scott (who last teamed with Crowe on American Gangster) and The Departed's Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monaghan (working from David Ignatius' novel) refrain from merely putting Ferris and Hoffman through the good-cop-bad-cop routine: Ferris' idealism isn't always beneficial, while Hoffman might be a prick, but he occasionally exhibits more clarity than might be expected. And even a superfluous romance between Ferris and a Muslim nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) allows for some insight into societal disapproval for such a coupling, as the pair can't even shake hands in public. It's the extra attention to smaller details that gives this Body its necessary heft. ***

BURN AFTER READING As is the case with most great filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen produce only two classifications of pictures. There's Major Coen, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and there's Minor Coen, such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Big Lebowski. (And then there's the strange case of Raising Arizona, which looks Minor but is Major every step of the way.) Burn After Reading is decidedly Minor Coen, which means that it's still more enjoyable than a lot of the product out there. With George Clooney and Brad Pitt in full-on clown mode, the film feels as much of an insignificant riff as those Ocean heist flicks, but with the Coens at the helm, it features a pitch-black comic sensibility that will either attract or repel moviegoers. The memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand). Their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit's aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement (his creation yields one of the film's biggest laughs and will be at the top of most women's Christmas wish lists). The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno's dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won't remain in the memory like most of the siblings' output. See Burn After Reading, but then expect to Forget After Seeing. ***

THE DUCHESS A substantial number of British costume dramas focus on the efforts of a corseted beauty to land a husband to call her own. These tales generally end on a "Happily Ever After" note, but The Duchess, based on a true story, begins where the others end and takes matters down a darker route: What if the man you snag turns out to be a complete lout? Keira Knightley stars as Georgiana, who, as a teenage girl in 1774, is entered into a marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She soon discovers that the Duke's only interest in her is that she produce a male heir, so after she gives birth to a couple of girls, he loses complete interest and embarks on an affair with her best friend, Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell). For her part, Georgiana keeps busy in her role as a society trendsetter, but she eventually finds herself contemplating an illicit romance with rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The Duke commits some monstrous acts during the course of the film, but it's a credit to the performance by Fiennes that the character never emerges as a dull, one-note villain but rather an emotionally stifled man whose Neanderthal brain can't quite grasp certain aspects of civility and respect. Likewise, Lady Elizabeth is revealed as far more than merely a spouse-stealer, and Atwell does an exemplary job of insuring her character remains the tenuous connective tissue between the Duke and the Duchess. As for Knightley, she's establishing herself as England's go-to girl for this sort of period epic: A bright and sunny presence in Pride and Prejudice, she's given greater depths to explore in this picture. She doesn't disappoint. ***

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