As nihilistic as No Country For Old Men and far less lively, Burn After Reading is the third consecutive clunking collaboration between the Coen Brothers and George Clooney.
Smug, dry satire is Joel and Ethan Coen’s comic stock in trade. Here, potshots at human shallowness, misinterpretation of positive thinking and societal idiocy are inert or viciously misdirected.
Meanwhile, Clooney rehashes his usual twitchy-eyed shtick for the Coens, cast here as a U.S. marshal seemingly sleeping with every woman in Washington D.C.
There’s no golden-era romantic pizzazz (Intolerable Cruelty), settings more fun to look at than scenes that are funny (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or vivacious verbal wit (from The Ladykillers, the Coens’ best comedy of the decade).
Coincidentally, The Ladykillers was Clooney-free. But both Clooney and the Coens will be back, and better than this. Besides, the Coens could always conspire with a new cohort – Brad Pitt, in his first film for the duo.
For permanently peppy gym rat Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), “shit” is an all-purpose noun, interchangeable into our language for “stuff.” The coloring that highlights Chad’s hair seems to have seeped into his brain. He speaks with a “Dude! Bro!” cadence. He dances with geeky, herky-jerky moves to his iPod tunes.
He is, to use the film’s phrase, part of “a league of morons.” Chad also is the funniest thing about Reading, setting into motion a convoluted plot about CIA memoirs.
Pitt plays dumb not just with fist-pumping outbursts, but expressional subtlety. Watch his demeanor shift from secretive to deer-in-headlights when making a late-night phone call. It’s precise and pitch-perfect, and most others are unable to keep up.
Chad proposes blackmail after coming across a CD containing the memoirs of Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst recently railroaded out of his job for “a drinking problem.” It’s a hoot to watch Malkovich’s manor-born demeanor meltdown when fired, but there’s far too little of Malkovich as the movie goes.
That’s especially a shame because Osbourne is behind the best satirical point the Coens make. Osbourne’s life is of so little significance to predicate a memoir — or “mem-wa,” as he pronounces it — but he’s arrogant enough to take notes on one anyway and include seemingly deep secrets within it.
Aiding Chad in his plot is his co-worker, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, seeming disinterested). Linda is obsessed with cosmetically altering her aging body and sees Osbourne’s potential payoff as a way to fund the tucks and cuts her insurance won’t.
The very-married Harry Pfarrer (Clooney) enters the picture when he starts seeing Linda. Harry also happens to be sleeping with Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), Osbourne’s wife. The Oscar-winning Swinton gets in her own comic digs as well, and the mere fact this ice-queen character is a pediatrician is good for a laugh.
J.K. Simmons, although typecast in a role similar to Thank You for Smoking and Juno, also gets in flustered laughs as the nameless CIA Superior.
Paraphrasing Hitchcock, if you mention an unfired gun in the first reel, you’d better be prepared to fire it. The Coens do that in traditional fashion, but it’s perfunctory – not shocking, not funny, not leading to anything resembling a resolution.
Also, Carter Burwell’s atypically overbearing score seems like it’s trying to engender sympathy for these amoral characters. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hate them. There’s everything wrong with not being given many reasons to laugh at them.