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Coenfederacy of dunces

Burn After Reading


Ex-CIA man Malkovich: Much like James Bond, except, you - know, bald, broke and bereft.
  • Ex-CIA man Malkovich: Much like James Bond, except, you know, bald, broke and bereft.

Burn After Reading (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown

You can take the title in a number of ways. As spy jargon, of course an order to protect top-secret information by ensuring that no eyes but your own ever will see it. Or as a spectacular critical rebuke, to a document so aggressively disposable that the disposal itself should be aggressive, punitive, scorching. Or maybe just as a warning, that reading the thing will give you some kind of terrible rash.

In any case, Burn After Reading, the new comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, is well-titled. It's fair to call it a grim farce about vanity in an age of constant surveillance, but that might imply more ambition than does the movie itself.

An alcoholic, apparently complacent CIA analyst, played by John Malkovich, gets pushed out of his job. Then he gets pushed out of his marriage to an icy pediatrician, played by Tilda Swinton, who's having an affair with George Clooney, a fidgety federal marshal who can't manage his appetite for women but can at least boast (in just such a way as to telegraph future plot turns) that he's never discharged his weapon in 20 years of service.

Before poor Malkovich can figure out how to begin his tell-all memoir (or "mem-wah," in his affected and telling pronunciation), he gets pushed out of his stately Georgetown home, too. All the while he gets pushed around - or nudged, at least - by a pair of would-be blackmailers, played by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, who find a disc of inchoate notes toward the mem-wah on a locker room floor at the gym where they work.

These two seem about as suited to extortion as their victim seems suited to a second career as an author namely, not at all. She's only in it to raise money for the cosmetic-surgery overhaul she hopes will improve her online dating prospects; he's in it presumably because he's a shallow dummy who needs a hobby.

And off they all go. It's a regression from the Coens' fine, award-laden adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men, but to some eyes perhaps a return to form: the standard-issue Coen comedy, full of resigned nihilism and profanity, with the usual myopically self-interested cartoon characters to whom the filmmakers mostly condescend. For one thing, the movie rudely aborts every one of its characters' arcs - some, like Richard Jenkins' thankless part as McDormand's boss and secret admirer, before they've even really begun.

With so many clever comedic moments handled as throwaways, Burn After Reading seems so proud of its restraint that it gets distracted from the business of actually building up to something, then just makes a joke of its own distraction. Thankfully, at least, this last duty falls to a perfectly cast J.K. Simmons as a perplexed CIA chief, who gamely delivers a short shot of deadpan brilliance.

Still, the movie belongs to Malkovich, too appropriate as a guy who's let down by and fed up with all around him, and who deserves better. Indeed, Burn After Reading is no No Country, but it's no Big Lebowski either. Like the meaning of its title, its stature within the Coen continuum is for you to decide.

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