Chilly, heartless, condescending: all the usual adjectives that the Coen brothers' detractors habitually fling can be flung in spades at "Burn After Reading." But after all these years of gleefully merciless Coen brothers movies—some superb, some misfires—why should we expect them to turn into gushing humanists? With a few notable exceptions—Marge in "Fargo," the Dude in "The Big Lebowski," Tommy Lee Jones's mournful sheriff in "No Country for Old Men," Billy Bob Thornton in "The Man Who Wasn't There"—most of their characters have the bold outlines of cartoon figures that might have been devised by a combination of Tex Avery and George Grosz. Their characters pop off the screen with rapacious, doomed vitality, unforgettable suckers on a comic treadmill that's usually heading straight downhill, if not, in the case of "Barton Fink," to hell itself.
"Burn After Reading" is a blackly comic illustration of Murphy's Law, set in the Washington world of CIA espionage, and populated with a cast of delusional dunces who are a wonder to behold. Coming after "No Country," their Oscar-winning foray into Cormac McCarthy's metaphysical gloom, their latest mordant jeu d'esprit might seem minor, but I must confess I enjoyed just about every heartlessly jolly minute of it. The insane steel trap of a plot gets rolling with the unceremonious firing of longtime CIA op Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an angry, alcoholic, bow-tied Princetonian who takes to writing his memoirs in his newfound spare time, and then proceeds to lose the disk they're written on at the gym, where it falls into the hands of Hardbodies Gym employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). The middle-aged Linda, desperate to raise money for the cosmetic surgeries that will enhance her Internet dating prospects, believes she's stumbled upon valuable intelligence secrets. Egged on by airhead fitness trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), she seizes the opportunity to peddle her treasure to the Russians. Through a series of nutty coincidences, her harebrained scheme intersects with that of paranoid federal marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a gold-chain-wearing, jogging-compulsive lothario who is having an affair both with Malkovich's wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and with Linda herself—neither of whom knows he is married to an author of children's books (Elizabeth Marvel). Linda's Internet liaisons are a stab in the heart to her boss, Ted (Richard Jenkins), whose unrequited passion for her draws him into her increasingly dangerous game.
The espionage angle, it turns out, is a red herring: the Coens aren't really interested in CIA satire but in constructing an escalating farce of idiotic behavior in which the characters will be hoisted by their own petards. (Carter Burwell's ominous thriller-like score is wittily counterintuitive: it never signals that we're watching a comedy.) The Coens may treat their characters like puppets, but the delight they take in working with such gold-plated actors is palpable—equaled only by the lip-smacking relish the cast takes in bringing this colorful menagerie of nincompoops to life.
That's the paradox that makes this parade of folly so much fun: it feels as if everyone involved is having a high old time, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Malkovich, a bald bundle of Brahmin fury, is at the top of his game: he blows fuses like a maestro. But he's given a run for his money by the scene-stealing, exuberantly silly Pitt, who seems liberated by the opportunity to undermine his leading-man image: just watch the way he sucks on a Gatorade, like a breast-feeding infant. Clooney, who can turn into a mugger when he plays broad comedy (I couldn't buy him as a country bumpkin in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), gets much further inside this slick philanderer—he's the kind of player who's addicted to making a dashing first impression but runs to the safety of his wife when his conquests start to make demands. It's a slyly self-parodying performance. McDormand, of course, knows how to fit into the Coens' highly stylized universe better than anyone (she is, after all, married to Joel), and she gives Linda the perfect balance of pathos and obsession. Swinton, as the acid-edged Katie, delivers her lines the way a master chef chops onions, with savage precision. Jenkins, the tender foil, makes a superb straight man.
Yet the funniest scenes of all may belong to two supporting players: the two CIA men who sit in their offices monitoring the escalating, and sometimes startlingly violent, repercussions of Linda and Chad's plot. They are played by David Rasche and J. K. Simmons, and they become the movie's exquisitely deadpan Greek chorus. As the mayhem and body count rise, the nonplussed Simmons orders Rasche to "report back to me—when it makes sense." That it doesn't is the Coens' final jest. "Burn After Reading" is delightful nonsense.