It's a total goof, of course. A lark, a one-off.
"Burn After Reading," the latest offering in the eclectic filmography of Joel and Ethan Coen, is not to be taken seriously -- one look at Brad Pitt's blond-streaked pouf of hair tells you that -- and it's certainly not to be compared to their starkly violent Academy Award-winner from last year, "No Country for Old Men."
Having said that, it is by no means a letdown as a follow-up. With its rat-a-tat dialogue and delusional characters, "Burn After Reading" falls more like the brothers' cult-favorite comedies such as "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski," and it lacks the desperation of their back-to-back duds, "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers."
We are no longer in "No Country," but we are assuredly in Coen Country.
This time, the filmmakers take their eye for regional detail to Washington for what looks like an espionage thriller, except that the spying uncovers no significant information, everybody is clueless and no one is ever truly in danger. The writing-directing brothers seem to have a genuine affection and sympathy for the idiots they've concocted and do not treat their characters with condescension, which they've at times been accused of doing. Meanwhile, the A-list actors are clearly having a blast.
John Malkovich, as a fired CIA analyst whose memoir falls into the wrong hands, is a hilarious marvel of precise, percolating rage. The Coens' old pal, George Clooney, is almost as much of a buffoon here as he was in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Naturally, Frances McDormand is uniquely tuned in to the Coens' rhythms, being one of their frequent stars -- not to mention, Joel's wife.
But Pitt steals every scene in which he appears -- and nearly walks away with the whole movie -- as an overgrown child of a gym trainer whose bungled schemes get him in way over his head. Just his name alone, Chad Feldheimer, makes him sound like a first-class doofus. But Pitt brings an innocence to the role that makes him irresistible rather than obnoxious; it's easy to forget that he can be funny, the shadow of superstardom and serious roles in films such as "Fight Club" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" looming so large. Here, he toys with his pretty-boy looks and it pays off big time.
The plot of "Burn After Reading" -- not that it matters so much, because its sole purpose is to set up the comic antics -- tumbles out like this:
Malkovich's Osborne Cox, who would obviously be a pompous prig even without his signature bow tie, is forced from his job at the Central Intelligence Agency, though as his boss repeatedly tries to assure him, "This doesn't have to be unpleasant," the kind of deadpan line the Coens like to inject over and over for laughs.
So Osborne storms home to Georgetown to drink and begin his memoir (which he overpronounces as "mem-wah") and drink some more. His wife Katie, played with icy impatience by Tilda Swinton, was already disgusted with him before he got the ax, as evidenced by her affair with Harry (Clooney), a married federal marshal who is proud to report that he's never had to fire his weapon in 20 years of service. You can see from here how this will end up.
For reasons that eventually will become clear, the disc containing Osborne's first draft lands in the laps of a couple of bumbling employees at the suburban Hardbodies Fitness Center: Chad and the high-strung and highly insecure Linda Litzke (McDormand), who hatch a plan to blackmail Osborne over the classified secrets they think they've uncovered.
Linda wants the money for the various plastic surgeries she insists will make her happy and complete, and will allow her to stop trolling for dates on the Internet. (Richard Jenkins co-stars as the gym's manager, who is secretly in love with Linda. Just the idea of the mild-mannered Jenkins managing a gym is amusing in itself.) And Chad wants the money for ... who knows? All he does is work out.
The Coens let the pacing sag from time to time in the movie's middle, even as the plot thickens and the schemes grow more complex -- at least as far as the characters are concerned. They're all so busy trying to be someone they're not, to be smart, sophisticated, somehow better, that their connection with reality is tenuous at best.
JK Simmons, who has only a couple of scenes as a CIA official, but they're memorable, puts it best when he says dryly to Osborne's boss: "Report back to me when ... I don't know. When it makes sense."
Sure thing. Good luck with all that.
"Burn After Reading," a Focus Features release, is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.