Stepping Back 

The Coen brothers regress with a corrosive spy comedy.

If the career-best No Country for Old Men was a dramatic breakthrough for the Coen brothers — their most organic filmmaking ever and more respectful of their characters than anything since The Big Lebowski — the duo's intentionally minor follow-up, the Washington comedy Burn After Reading, is very much a return to form.

Zooming in from the vantage point of a spy satellite, the film opens in a drab CIA office as career spook Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is getting demoted to a lower-level State Department gig, sitting across from a superior named Palmer DeBakey Smith and surrounded by gray-flannel company men named "Peck" and "Olson." This WASP's nest comes across like a spoof of the sober CIA history The Good Shepherd, but the anachronistic feel of the scene (the movie is set in the present) is a tip-off that the Coens aren't very serious about skewering present-day Washington.

Burn After Reading has as interesting a cast as any film this year, and the Coens deftly tie their film's moving parts together in an increasingly circular plot: Malkovich's Osborne retires home to his severe wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) and the company of D.C. cocktail-party frenemies such as Secret Service vet Harry (George Clooney), who is having an affair with Katie.

Preparing for a divorce, Katie copies family financial records (as well as notes for Osborne's memoirs) for her attorney, whose secretary loses them at her gym, Hardbodies. Investigating the found disc, Hardbodies assistant manager Linda (Frances McDormand) and personal trainer Chad (Brad Pitt) trace it back to Osborne but mistake the contents for classified secrets, setting up a haphazard extortion attempt.

The performances here are uniformly excellent but to the service of a film that's pointlessly corrosive. Malkovich gives an elaborate portrayal of annoyed malevolence and unearned hubris. Clooney and Pitt play against type as skittish and dorky, respectively. Pitt's Chad is all cheerful, empty, uncomprehending surfaces. It's a one-note performance but an enjoyable one.

The punchlines pile up: the ice queen who turns out to be a pediatrician; the children's book author with a penchant for infidelity and kinky sex; an online dating service as a means for pathetic illicit encounters; a (self-)serious man taking a break from (self-)serious work to watch Family Feud and get plastered.

Burn After Reading is a return to the Coen universe in which everyone's a schmuck — a liar or a cheat or a bumbler, ultimately selfish and constantly scheming. This would be okay if the film had more zip and zeal or if the Coens had a worldview to impart that was any deeper than Pitt's Chad in workout mode, something beyond mockery and empty misanthropy. (They really need to reassess what exactly they like about alleged influence Preston Sturges, whose own madcap satires are far funnier and more purposeful.) The Coens' attack on characters who don't believe in or care about anything would be sharper if the filmmakers themselves didn't seem to share the same flaws.

Burn After Reading

Opening Friday, September 12th

Mulitple locations

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