Anyone who has seen the trailer for Burn After Reading on TV and given the aggressiveness of the promotional campaign for this lazy new frolic, I assume most everyone has knows the movie (1) is written and directed by the same guys who made No Country for Old Men, and (2) shares none of No Country's qualities in any category except silliness of hairdos on movie stars happy to look dorky in the service of Joel and Ethan Coen. The dour terrain of novelist Cormac McCarthy sharpened the best of the brothers' instincts for tracking the path of human anarchy, and the reward from their public and peers was a bookcase of awards, Oscars included. But the reward to themselves turns out to be a retreat to the familiar funny farm. Once more in Burn After Reading they goof around, in their arch, bemused way, with conventions of genre a little screwball here, some spy spoof there. Once more they work from an original Coen story in which needy people are rewarded with chuckles for their neediness. Once more fans of Fargo and The Big Lebowski (as well as those random contrarians who liked The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty) know what to expect.
But as a result of all that tilling, the movie is overplowed, even if Brad Pitt's debut as a Coen comedy player is eye-catching: The star rags on his own pretty-boy status by genially rocking a bleached-skunk coif bound to draw as much comment as Javier Bardem's No Country pageboy. Pitt plays Chad Feldheimer (the characters wear funny-sounding names as they might fake mustaches), a gym trainer low on intellectual wattage but high on electrolytes in a suburban Washington, D.C., fitness club. Chad happens to find a lost computer disc on the gym floor that may contain valuable information.
And then stuff happens, a giddily self-destructing spiral of missteps involving Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a drink-prone CIA spook fired from his job, who seeks revenge by writing a memoir (the disc contains his notes); the spy's disdainful wife, Katie Cox (the great Tilda Swinton, who can do sexy chill as either comedy or tragedy on demand); and Katie's womanizing lover, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal whose equanimity rises and falls depending on whether he gets in his regular five-mile run, ideally after sex. (Good news: Clooney plays the third in what he has called his Coen-created ''trilogy of idiots'' with less of a capital I than he did in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty.) For idle amusement, Osborne Cox sports a bow tie and a loyalty to his fellow Princeton alumni, signifying a brand of outmoded, old-boy values I guess the filmmakers are laughing at just because such things are outmoded. Even so, the ever more rococo performance artiste Malkovich manages to bust looser and goosier than even the Coens know what to do with, and his virtuoso thespian arias of alcohol- enhanced nuttiness (precisely tailored to fit an aging ex–CIA man's lifestyle) are the movie's one honestly fresh turn of the screwy.
All of which brings us back to the boob played by Pitt, as well as to Frances McDormand, that marvel of fine acting chops and confounding taste in the roles she takes, both in and out of Coen productions (she hasn't been married to Joel Coen all these years for nothing). Here, McDormand portrays fellow gym employee Linda Litzke, a sad, single lady who treats her femininity as something akin to an embarrassing, itchy rash. (She's got some of the choppy, desexualized speech patterns of Fargo's Marge Gunderson, and a whole lot more self-loathing.) Linda hates everything about her face and body her goal is to finance a head-to-toe surgical overhaul, possibly with extortion money wrung from Chad for his computer disc, if that's what it takes. Still, she's also brave enough to look for love online; she dares to have real feelings. And while she hurts, we're invited to laugh. Linda is Burn After Reading's most troublesome character she's a serious woman disguised as a joke, thrown into a story that has no use for seriousness (or, jeez, for women). Here's something to consider after watching Pitt revel in the role of a dim bulb perfectly contented with his life while McDormand is stuck once again playing a bright-enough woman discontented with the universe: Is this not very old country for Coen men? C