Burn After Reading can be easily analyzed as Joel and Ethan Coen's respite from the grimness of adapting No Country for Old Men, written concurrently and produced shortly thereafter.
The two movies share a theme — greed inspiring fatally bad decisions — and little else. Burn After Reading is an amalgamation of nearly every original movie the Coens have made, as if the Oscar-winning brothers were reminding themselves of their uniquely comical oeuvre after so slavishly evoking Cormac McCarthy's dark novel.
This is the kind of movie Coenphiles will lap up, with its quirky characters and nonchalant absurdities ready to compare with Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple and other such films. From casting to conclusion, Burn After Reading plays like a greatest hits album; familiar, sublime riffs are somehow hamstrung by new arrangements. Not bad, but not exhilarating (as the Coens have trained fans to expect).
The retrospective begins with George Clooney and Frances McDormand hired to play variations on earlier characters: Clooney as Harry Pfarrer, a married, sexaholic treasury agent, features the matinee idol screwball tics employed in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, while McDormand's peppy, purposeful Linda Litzke could be a second cousin to Fargo's Marge Gunderson.
Harry's various infidelities include the wife (Tilda Swinton) of disgraced CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) who plans to author an agency expose. Linda will also succumb to Harry's charms without realizing how the script connects them. Somehow a computer disc of Osborne's memoirs is discovered in the fitness club where Linda works, leading to a blackmail scheme to pay for her cosmetic surgery.
Assisted by dim-witted co-worker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), Linda embarks on a mission more doomed/foolish (yet funnier) than Llewelyn Moss' money grab in No Country for Old Men. One senses the darkness of one movie being worked out yet seeping into the script of a comedy. Two shockingly violent surprises in Burn After Reading suggest the catharsis wasn't completed.
Burn After Reading doesn't boast a solid narrative — watching Clooney sweat through these puzzling spy circumstances plays like an unintentional spoof of Syriana — and most of the actors have only one note to play. But those notes are performed well, and the Coens are savvy enough to blend them into a pleasantly uneven rhythm.
Pitt turns the muscle-headed narcissist bit into a few laughs, Malkovich is scarily intense as Osborne unravels, and J.K. Simmons nearly steals the movie from behind his desk as a CIA official as confused about what's going on as the audience. But we sense that the Coens aren't letting their hair down, which would pump up the comedy here and perhaps take the edge off No Country for Old Men. Burn After Reading eventually becomes as disposable as its title commands.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.