An anti-conspiracy lampoon of conspiracy thrillers, the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading paints its floundering Washington inhabitants as intractably or even fatally stupid. Unless they’re towering pillars of cultured rage like C.I.A. analyst Osborne Cox (top-shelf John Malkovich), whose none-too-subtle easing-out the company door opens the movie. “This is a crucifixion! Whose ass didn’t I kiss?” blusters Malkovich as a bow-tied, alcoholic American Brahmin whose life unravels until he’s stalking the deck of his leisure boat like Boris Karloff in a bathrobe. After Cox deems his unextraordinary career worthy of a memoir, a disc containing the draft convolutedly winds up in the hands of dimwitted gym employees Linda (Frances McDormand), a Web-dating single desperate for liposuction funds, and Chad (Brad Pitt), a highlights-coiffed trainer with blackmail on his spy-movie-addled mind. Bad and worse things happen when both cross paths with glib liar Harry (George Clooney), a Treasury Department grunt who’s “never discharged my weapon” (foreshadowing) but is stuck in a curdled affair with Cox’s wife (arctic Tilda Swinton) while bed-hopping via Internet dates.
Following up their No Country for Old Men coronation with a scattershot farce that’s at least funnier and more ambitious than the pointless Ladykillers, the Coens present D.C. as a loopy company town with its own starstruck aspirants, where the highest wisdom is admitting to having no clue what is going on. Tonally, Burn is something of a mess: the first half goes mostly for the wry comedy of bad marriages and dreams of a transformed life, before a nasty encounter in a Georgetown closet leads events down the violent slapstick trail familiar from the Fargo wood-chipper. Some of the antic strokes satisfy; while Pitt finally overplays his iPod-glued, gum-chewing dumbass, Malkovich’s take of astonishment when his blackmailer pedals up in a suit and bike helmet is golden, and Clooney’s smooth bedroom bullshit—plus the erotically-enhanced chair he’s built in the basement for his cuckolded wife—at least merit broad smiles. But it’s the undertow of sadness that lingers, in McDormand’s desperate hopefulness as she scans park benches for a Net-made rendezvous, Clooney assuring Swinton in bed that their affair is “more than fun and games” with a nervous nod, Malkovich finding solace only in a Princeton reunion song or his pompous estimation of his memoirs’ value.
As usual, the Coens’ tech collaborators aid the japery handsomely, Carter Burwell punctuating the score with the booming kettledrums of espionage hokum and Emmanuel Lubezki (pinch-hitting for cinematography regular Roger Deakins) adding plausible mystery to the broad streets and paneled lairs of Washington. The jokey wrap-up of the film sees nearly all the principals’ fates summarized or foretold by a flummoxed pair of intelligence higher-ups (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons) who’ve shrugged their way through developments surrounding the Cox disc (“Get back to me…when it makes sense”). While this smells of recurring Coen misanthropy, as a state-of-the-union punchline, it’ll do; as obsessed as you may be about your serial fucking, cosmetic surgery or future in consulting, you’re a few accidents away from having it all checkmarked away in a bureaucratic Olympus.