After their triumphant dramatic success with “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers revert to sophomoric snarky mode in “Burn After Reading.” A dark goofball comedy about assorted doofuses in Washington, D.C., only some of whom work for the government, the short, snappy picture tries to mate sex farce with a satire of a paranoid political thriller, with arch and ungainly results. Major star names might stoke some mild B.O. heat with older upscale viewers upon U.S. release Sept. 12, but no one should expect this reunion of George Clooney and Brad Pitt to remotely resemble an “Ocean’s” film commercially.
A seriously talented cast has been asked to act like cartoon characters in this tale of desperation, mutual suspicion and vigorous musical beds, all in the name of laughs that only sporadically ensue. Everything here, from the thesps’ heavy mugging to the uncustomarily overbearing score by Carter Burwell and the artificially augmented vulgarities in the dialogue, has been dialed up to an almost grotesquely exaggerated extent, making for a film that feels misjudged from the opening scene and thereafter only occasionally hits the right note.
Ironically, said curtain-raiser shows the CIA actually getting something right. Career analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is shoved out, and his subsequent obscene tantrum demonstrates he has all the decorum and self-control of a 5-year-old. Lying to his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), that he quit, Osborne sets about writing an explosive memoir, while no-nonsense Katie now seriously begins considering leaving her unhinged husband for her happy-go-lucky lover Harry (Clooney), a federal marshal none too committed to wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel).
In an utterly unrelated orbit of D.C. life, desperately middle-aged Linda (Frances McDormand) is pissed that the insurance company for the fitness center where she works won’t cover the extensive plastic surgery she urgently wants done. So antic and frantic you wonder if anesthesia would ever work on her, she suddenly steps into merde with gym trainer Chad (Pitt), who’s even more hyperactive than she is, when the latter finds a disc they think is loaded with ultra-classified information.
With frosted blond hair, and appearing so dense he may as well have his low-double-digit IQ pasted to his forehead, Pitt’s Chad is what passes for a riot here. Film’s funniest scene may be that in which Chad, having traced the disc to Osborne, phones the latter in the middle of the night to initiate the blackmail scheme that will net Linda the coin she needs to transform her bod. Pitt slices the ham very thick indeed, but uniquely emerges as endearing in doing so.
Coincidentally, Internet dater Linda starts shagging Harry, who, amusingly, likes to go for long runs after sex, and just past the one-hour mark, one major character gets blown away in an accident, a development that’s supposed to be funny as well as startling.
The Coens’ script, which feels immature but was evidently written around the same time as that for “No Country,” is just too fundamentally silly, without the grounding of a serious substructure that would make the sudden turn to violence catch the viewer up short. Nothing about the project’s execution inspires the feeling that this was ever intended as anything more than a lark, which would be fine if it were a good one. As it is, audience teeth-grinding sets in early and never lets up.
Incidental niceties crop up, to be sure. The Coens’ economy of storytelling is in evidence, as is their unerring visual sense, this time in league with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; a low-angle shot of Harry, knife in hand, lingers especially. The date montages are cute, and the facial reactions of JK Simmons, playing a CIA boss more dedicated to avoiding fuss and bother than to getting to the bottom of things, are once again priceless. But on any more substantive level, “Burn After Reading” is a flame-out.