Critical darlings since the 1980s, the Coen Brothers now belong to everyone after taking home the little gold man for their Cormac McCarthy adaptation, No Country for Old Men. So were those nasty reviews lobbed at the duo’s latest upon its Venice premiere the rumblings of a backlash? Because viewed objectively, Burn After Reading is a return to form for the Coens, a shaggy dog tale about one misstep begetting another, but without the distraction of belle lettres gravitas or cactuses.
Two knuckleheaded gym employees, Linda and Chad (played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, the latter sporting his Cool World coiffure), discover a disc left behind in a locker room that they believe contains state secrets. After tracing the disc back to disgruntled former C.I.A. analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), the pair hatch a blackmail scheme that will enable Linda to pay for a series of cosmetic surgeries and thus meet a better class of men. The problem is that the disc doesn’t contain anything more classified than Cox’s memoirs (Malkovich’s well-timed, full-throttle Gallic pronunciation of the word may be the movie’s funniest line).
Set in D.C. but shot principally in New York, the Beltway of Burn After Reading looks more like the Boston of The Departed than our nation’s capital. And the provocative conceit of the film (that loneliness and sexual frustration are the underlying causes of government corruption) is squandered on cheap laughs at the expense of George Clooney’s sex-addicted federal marshal. As a result, what might have been a searing parody of contemporary Washington comes off instead as slight — a Me and You and Everyone We Know for misanthropes.