Coen brothers' spy lark

Posted: September 12, 2008

The screen reads "CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia," and the footfalls of spooks in suits resound on the soundtrack - heels clicking down the gleaming corridors like tap dancers in slow motion, or ice cubes in a glass of Scotch.

And so begins the Coen brothers' ricocheting spy spoof/sex farce/midlife crisis comedy, Burn After Reading. And speaking of Scotch: Osborne Cox, a veteran analyst on Langley's Balkans desk, has just been told to retire. He's a drunk, his higher-ups say. At which point John Malkovich, in his rumpled Brooks Brothers - and in high dudgeon, playing this bow-tied CIA guy, Cox - goes ballistic. He makes sour jokes about Mormons (his boss, David Rasche, is one) and drops the F-bomb like a nuclear holocaust.

A far cry from Joel and Ethan Coen's haunting, high-caliber No Country for Old Men, the filmmaking siblings' Burn After Reading is a goofy screwball romp that affords a gaggle of A-listers the chance to hambone around in antic style: Brad Pitt gets a funny name - Chad Feldheimer - and funnier hair, in the role of a Washington fitness instructor. Frances McDormand is Linda Litzke, Chad's coworker, desperate for extra money for cosmetic surgery. George Clooney mugs it up as Harry Pfarrer, a federal marshal and a sex addict. And Tilda Swinton, a doctor, is married to Cox, but sleeping with Harry.

The paths cross, and double-cross. Richard Jenkins gets face time - and considerably more - as Chad and Linda's boss. And veteran character actor J.K. Simmons delivers a series of deadpan musings as a CIA bigwig baffled by what's happening around him.

Which is: Chad and Linda discover a computer disk at the gym that looks to be a top-secret CIA document. They conspire to extort Cox, author of the document, and threaten to sell the disk to the Russians if he doesn't pay. Meetings on park benches ensue - although most of these have to do with Internet dating, not espionage.

Paced like Preston Sturges, but with moments of jolting violence, and with a plot that doesn't really add up (it doesn't seem to want to), Burn After Reading is at its snappiest in the scenes with Malkovich. The actor, alternately ranting like a loon and sulking around his townhouse, bath-robed, drink in hand, couldn't be more pathetic and contemptible - and funny.

Pitt pushes the limits of numskullery, playing Chad like a pop-eyed cartoon, but he gets away with it thanks to, well, his essential Bradness. And Clooney, as a compulsive shagger whose first postcoital move is always to go for a run, has a jumpy charm that brings his narcissistic G-man to life.

A likable lark that doesn't even pretend to explore the darker regions of human behavior, Burn After Reading nonetheless offers some snarky Coensian commentary about the panic that sets in when people reach a certain point in their (mid-)life: reconfiguring one's body, losing one's job, giving into obsessions, to greed, to self-delusion.

"What did we learn here?" wonders the CIA boss played by Simmons after getting briefed on the hugger-mugger, blackmail and murder spinning around the Beltway.

Not much, it turns out. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been amusing.

Burn After Reading *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. With George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt

and Tilda Swinton.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violoence, sex, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or