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Burn After Reading

From the Coen Brothers, a Misguided Meditation on Stupidity

How depressing it is to see Frances McDormand, whose unaffected folksiness only partially masked her incisive smarts in Fargo, play such a grating, superficial halfwit in Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest black comedy, Burn After Reading. McDormand is Linda Litzke, a middle-aged administrator at the Hardbodies gym who idles away her days dreaming of the cosmetic surgery that will reinvigorate her love life. She scours the Internet for the right man, but the dating sites are littered with losers and married types up for a fling.

Linda is a loser, too -- for someone whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best, it’s one of the few concepts she seems to understand -- but that hardly distinguishes her from any of the self-obsessed dopes who inhabit the oddly disconnected universe of Burn After Reading. This is a movie filled with gross caricatures incapable of hearing each other over the noise of their own empty-headed chatter.

Usually for better and rarely for worse, the Coen brothers have been down this road before. Their most inspired comedies, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou, follow the misadventures of good-natured layabouts thrust into situations they can barely comprehend, much less handle. Here, the brothers weave an elaborate, misanthropic web of desperation and betrayal around a group of characters so jaded they take no real pleasure from their artless deceptions and sordid affairs. Imagine how we feel.

Burn After Reading has been marketed as a screwball comedy, thanks in no small part to Brad Pitt’s exaggerated posturing as Chad, a goofball fitness instructor who thinks he has stumbled onto classified government secrets. (He hasn’t.) It’s a performance long on tongue-in-cheek exuberance but short on laughs. Chad is all spastic tics and vacuous pronouncements (“Aw, that’s cool!”), an overgrown child who approaches life as a never-ending pep rally. Pitt throws himself into the role admirably, but it’s a waste of energy.

Yet for all his shortcomings, Chad is at least genial. The same cannot be said of Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a hard-drinking, Princeton-educated analyst unceremoniously dumped by the C.I.A., or his cold-blooded wife (Tilda Swinton). Trapped in a loveless marriage and humiliated by his wife’s infidelities, Osborne seems a sympathetic figure until he opens his mouth. Slightly less repugnant is George Clooney’s sex-addicted U.S. marshal, Harry Pfarrer, whose rugged good looks make women swoon even when his incessant, self-absorbed babble grows stale.

The Coens wrote Burn After Reading around the same time they authored their Oscar-winning screenplay for No Country for Old Men, and if No Country was a bleak meditation on the hard realities of living and dying in a merciless world, [bBurn comes across as a tone-deaf parody that leaves you cold.

All the ingredients are there -- the graphic (and, in this case, strangely incongruous) bursts of violence, the rapidly rising body count, even the ominous score by Carter Burwell. But while No Country had some respect for its characters -- and so, then, did we – Burn After Reading holds its own up to ridicule and disposes of them with a shrug of indifference. By the time J.K. Simmons arrives to offer a ho-hum summation that feels like a cynical retort to Tommy Lee Jones’ melancholy closing monologue from No Country, we’ve ceased caring, too.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars