After No Country for Old Men’s rapturous (to my mind, overly so) reception at the Oscars, the Coen brothers have returned to the kind of movie that made their name: an arch black comedy about provincial losers on the make. In a weird way, the cheerfully nonsensical spy caper Burn After Reading (Focus Features)is almost like a comic version of No Country. In both movies, a small-time blunderer gets a hold of some stolen property and, in the attempt to profit from this luck, gets in way over his or her head with some seriously bad dudes. But whereas No Country was ponderous, Burn After Reading is flip. The decay of America’s moral fabric, the new movie implies, is no reason for bleak despair and breakfast-table hand-wringing; it’s just the brutally funny truth.
Burn After Reading’s roundelay of buffoons is set in motion by Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who’s fired in the opening scene because of a drinking problem. After venting his outrage at this injustice, Cox goes home to drink—and to bounce some career plans off his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), an icy shrew who’s plotting to leave him for federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Meanwhile, the first draft of Cox’s grandiose personal memoir somehow winds up on a disk on the floor of the Hardbodies gym, where it’s intercepted by personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Convinced that he has some “classified shit” on his hands, Chad shows the document to his co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). As it happens, Linda has been trying to raise money for the extensive cosmetic surgery that she’s convinced she needs in order to catch a man. So the barely functional Linda convinces the even dumber Chad to help her shake down Cox for $50,000.
The joke is that the intel at the center of this spy story is utterly without value. Cox doesn’t care about getting his disk back; he only wants to get a bead on the motives of these two clueless blackmailers. Chad and Linda carry on like characters from a Graham Greene novel, arranging drop-off points and meetings with Russian diplomats, oblivious to the fact that their faux MacGuffin is getting them in real trouble. It’s a clever setup for a spoof of the espionage thriller, but despite the film’s intermittent pleasures (Pitt’s gum-snapping dolt chief among them), the result is oddly airless.
Part of the problem is a plot twist two-thirds of the way through that abruptly changes the tone from devil-may-care lark to nihilistic joke. I’ve written before on the Coens’ sadism toward their audience. The brothers’ penchant for pulling out the rug from beneath our feet and then snickering when we fall down was what kept me from giving myself over to the otherwise powerful No Country for Old Men. Asimilar tactic undercuts the momentum of Burn After Reading; when something awful happens to one of the few characters worth rooting for, the energy simply rushes out of the movie.
Still, for those who like their black comedy without a trace of cream or sugar, Burn holds up as a minor Coen brothers comedy, a Hudsucker Proxy rather than a Big Lebowski. It zips along at 95 minutes, features lots of A-listers enjoying the chance to mug broadly, and delivers at least a dozen big laughs. Several of these come from the indispensable J.K. Simmons as a pragmatic CIA head. (Is there another actor alive who can bark from behind a desk with the authority of J.K. Simmons?) “No biggie,” he tells a nervous underling who’s briefing him on the unfolding mayhem. “Report back to me when all this makes sense.”