A blast, darkly

Times Movie Critic

Writer-DIRECTORS Joel and Ethan Coen have such a distinctive creative palette that there ought to be a paint color named after them. Imagine it standing brooding and apart in the Benjamin Moore catalog, overwhelming the likes of mustang tan, Durango dust and barleyfield beige. Say hello to Coen brothers black, the go-to color when you’re going really, really dark.

Because it is a comedy, the Coens’ new film, “Burn After Reading,” is something of a palate cleanser for the brothers after the rigors of the Academy Award-winning “No Country for Old Men.” But because it’s a Coen brothers film before it’s anything else, this is about as dark and nihilistic as comedies are allowed to get before the laughter dies bitterly on your lips.

A bleakly funny spoof on spy films as well as a melancholy riff on despairing lives, “Burn After Reading” has the usual bunch of venal, self-absorbed characters trying to extricate themselves from the confusing messes they’ve gotten themselves into.


With Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton playing the leads, misunderstandings and crossed purposes on a heroic scale are the name of the game. Like all spoofs, “Burn” is erratic and not always on target, but there are character comedy moments here, particularly involving Pitt and McDormand, that are hard to resist.

Like any self-respecting spy movie, “Burn” begins at CIA headquarters, where veteran spook and die-hard Princeton man Osborne “Oz” Cox (Malkovich), resplendent in a bow tie and three-piece suit, is unceremoniously fired off the Balkans desk. His response to this, as to all things, is to increase his drinking and, almost as an afterthought, to begin work on his memoirs.

Not at all pleased by this is Cox’s hard-driving doctor wife, Katie (Swinton). But Mrs. Cox is so rarely pleased by anything her husband does that she’s been having an extended affair with (and considering marrying) federal marshal and serial philanderer Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a fatuous oaf who already has a wife. But no matter.

On the other end of the Washington social spectrum are the employees of a local Hardbodies Fitness Center, a group more interested in the state of their own bodies than anyone else’s. This is especially true of the uber-determined Linda Litzke (McDormand), a striver for worldly success who is not ashamed to admit, “I have gone as far as I can with this body.”

Linda so believes that a wave of plastic surgeries will change her life that she is flabbergasted when her insurance company rejects them as electives. And when she and her pal Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) stumble across a disc containing Oz’s lame memoirs and a household budget, she convinces herself she has found the answer to her prayers.

For these bears of little brain confuse the found CD with raw U.S. intelligence data that can be sold to the highest bidder for enough money to make any and all surgeries possible. “It’s like slipping on ice in front of a fancy restaurant,” Linda says of her obligation to take this disc and shove it as far as she can. If only it were that simple.

It’s no surprise that McDormand, whose great skills won her an Oscar for playing indomitable Police Chief Marge Gunderson in the Coens’ “Fargo,” knows just where all the jokes are in a character who is so obsessed with Inter- net dating she doesn’t notice that her boss (Richard Jenkins) is her likeliest romantic match.

What is more of a pleasant surprise is that Pitt, a newcomer to the Coens’ world, is completely at ease with this material as well. With an upswept haircut reminiscent of the one he had in 1991’s “Johnny Suede,” the actor matches McDormand laugh for laugh playing a doltish accomplice who means well but is not really cut out for the espionage game.

Though “Burn After Reading” is as much a nightmare as it is a comedy, helping with the laughs are the film’s exceptional group of unsung character actors who deliver impeccable performances in minimal roles -- Jeffrey DeMunn as a cosmetic surgeon, J.R. Horne as a divorce lawyer and J.K. Simmons as a CIA big shot. When Simmons’ exasperated character says of the story, “Report back to me when it makes sense,” he’s summarizing this archetypal Coen venture as well as anyone can.



“Burn After Reading.” MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In general release.