"This is a man practiced in deceit," says one character of another in Burn After Reading. "It's almost his job." Deceit is very much the job of the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen. It's as if, after winning two fat Oscars (best picture and director) for their fairly straightforward adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, the brothers needed to reassert their old capricious cunning, their weasily larkishness, their independence from easy acclaim. "Just because you agree with the Academy that we made the best film of 2007," they seem to be warning their fans, "don't think you're any closer to figuring out our motives. We're still tough to get. Deceit is our job, our pleasure and your challenge."
In this desultory spy caper which had its world premiere as the opening night selection at the Venice Film Festival, and will play the Toronto Film Festival later this week they take George Clooney and Brad Pitt, those modern icons of sex and savoir-faire, drop them in the world of Washington, D.C., espionage, then keep ratcheting down their emotional IQs. They turn Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen off-screen) into a mad-man loser with a severe self-image problem. The characters' lives get more desperate as the camera style retains its affectless sheen.
So the viewer's fun, such as it is, comes from guessing where the movie is headed and why it's going there. The ultimate question, from this admirer of virtually all the brothers' work, from the early Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing to their previous Clooney collaborations O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, is a plaintive "What the heck kind of film is this?"
As close to an answer as you'll get here is that Burn After Reading is an essay in the cocoon of ignorance most of us live in. It pushes the old form of movie comedy smart people saying clever things into collision with today's dominant model of slackers whose utterly unfounded egotism eventually worms its way into an audience's indulgence. Which is to say that most of the people here seem like bright lights but are actually dim bulbs. They're not falling-down stupid; they radiate the subtler variety of idiocy that can be mistaken for charm, decency or even brilliance.
That's certainly true of the CIA analyst played by John Malkovich. Osborne Cox: his very name is steeped in two denominations of old money. After decades at the Agency, he has perfected the look and the attitude of a career spook. He wears a smart dark suit and that inevitable flourish of the house eccentric, a bow tie. Osborne's Olympian contempt for his superiors, his overcareful pronunciation of French words ("mem-wah"), the modest shock value of a Princeton man spicing every sentence with the f-word all these mark him as hailing from that generation and class of American spies who considered themselves more knowledgeable, hard-thinking and highly pedigreed than the politicians they worked for, yet who managed to miss the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international ambitions of al-Qaeda and the existence in their midst of Soviet-paid moles like Aldrich Ames.
At the start of the film Cox is summoned to his boss's office and told he's to be cashiered from the CIA and transferred to a low-clearance post at the State Dept. As he spits out retorts with majestic acerbity, you think for a minute that he's right and the Agency is wrong that he knows too much or has dug too deep. But by the end of the scene his bluster has revealed Osborne as a malingerer, a rummy and a jerk; his prickly panache is simply the spy's cover that everyone who works with him has long since seen through.
Harry Pfarrer looks much more successful. After all, he is played by last-matinee-idol Clooney, has been screwing Cox's icy-beautiful wife (Tilda Swinton) and recently emerged from 20 years in the Secret Service "without ever discharging my weapon" which is as sure a clue at the firearm of the wall in the first act of an Ibsen play that Harry's gun will be fired. He has the patter down pat, but something, maybe his fascination with the floors in the houses he visits, tells you that this Clooney smoothie is following the dictum the Coens laid down for all their actors: "to channel your inner knucklehead."
McDormand's Linda Litzke, assistant manager at a D.C.-area gym, is at the opposite end of the esteem spectrum. Primally troubled by her sagging derriere, and by "a gut that swings back and forth in front of me like a shopping cart with a bent wheel," she obsesses on the plastic surgery she thinks will give her some kind of a life. The ruck of men she's found through online dating services don't offer much. One of them takes her to a movie comedy and doesn't laugh; to dinner and doesn't talk; to bed and he utters not a word before falling asleep. Next to this troglodyte, Harry seems like man-meat from heaven.
The final piece of this puzzling jigsaw is Linda's gym assistant Chad Feldheimer, played by Pitt with a blithe goofball goodness. Outfitted in Spandex, and getting around with a walk that suggests less a guest on Dancing With the Stars than a heretofore unclassified creature on Animal Planet, Chad-Brad is the least troubled character in the film. He's never thought hard enough to consider how other people might think of him; he has no special dreams to defer, no ambitions to be crushed. For him, the unexamined life is the only one worth living.
Chad does have a plan. He's come across a disc containing Cox's notes toward a mem-wah, and he brings Linda into the notion of calling Cox to return the disc; maybe the grateful owner will give them a small reward. Cox misinterprets Chad's call as blackmail, and rears up to snort and neigh at the do-gooders. That brings Harry into the plot, and things devolve from there.
I have the sinking feeling I've made Burn After Reading sound funnier than it is. The movie's glacial affectlessness, its remove from all these subpar schemers, left me cold and perplexed. I did appreciate the nicely modulated turns from Richard Jenkins as Linda's sweet-souled boss and J.K. Simmons as the head of the CIA. But for me, the surest laughs came from the portentous percussion in Carter Burwell's wonderful underscoring; it pile-drives an expectation of suspense that the film never delivers.
Except for the suspense about the brothers' aims with their latest movie. Film critics aren't supposed to confess bafflement at the end of a review, but that's what I feel here. Either the Coens failed, or I didn't figure out what they're attempting. I must be like Harry or Osborne, pretending to a sophistication I lack. Burn After Reading is a movie about stupidity that left me feeling stupid.