Coens Ask the C.I.A. for a License to Laugh By MANOHLA DARGIS
Heart isn’t usually part of the discussion when we talk about movies, partly, I imagine, because it sounds too corny. And fuzzy. After all, what does it mean to say this or that director or film shows a lot of heart or too little? I ask only because “Burn After Reading,” the clubby, predictably self-amused comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, has a tricky plot, visual style, er, to burn, but so little heart as to warrant a Jarvik 8.
Not that you probably won’t choke up a couple of ho-ho’s in between a few hee-hee’s whenever Big Daddy Brad Pitt, as a nitwit gym rat with a Pepe Le Pew two-tone hair-stack, twitches across the screen or the camera nuzzles one of the other goofy gargoyles so beloved by the Coens. Mr. Pitt’s Chad is the overripe second banana to Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife), who has some vague job at the gym where the two sort of work. Chad’s a buffoon (the hard body as soft brain), and Mr. Pitt has been charged with delivering a caricature rather than a character, but because the actor loves playing sidemen and conveys such natural, irrepressible (irresistible) sweetness, he’s also one of the film’s saving graces.
It could use a few more. Like most of the Coens’ comedies, “Burn After Reading” is something of a shaggy sendup of an established genre and conventions, in this case the espionage flick. The film opens and closes with a Google Maps view of the Earth that has already become a cinematic cliché, a godly perspective that rapidly narrows in on the headquarters for the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va. There, an analyst named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) soon receives a demotion for boozing, the first knot in an increasingly and intentionally tangled thicket of contrivances and coincidences mostly involving three favorite American (and Hollywood) preoccupations: money, sex and self.
With its complexly interwoven stories, political backdrop and the central presence of a bearded George Clooney, the film comes across a bit like “Syriana for Dummies,” though given the original this seems somewhat redundant. Here Mr. Clooney, recycling the tic-y head bobs and weaves from his “ER” days, plays Harry Pfarrer, a federal marshal who is two-timing his wife, Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), with Osborne’s scarier better half, Katie (Tilda Swinton). A serial adulterer who totes his own wedge-shaped bolster to his assignations, Harry hooks up with Linda through the Internet, an improbability only slightly less preposterous than the computer disk of C.I.A. secrets that ends up floating around Linda and Chad’s gym and leading them in a world of trouble. As Donald H. Rumsfeld once said, “Stuff happens.”
Professional wisenheimers, the Coens like squeezing laughs out of potentially hazardous material, whether they’re dumping a paraplegic out of a wheelchair for a chuckle, as they do in their finest film, “The Big Lebowski” (a comedy about the drama of friendship), or violently disposing of bit players, as they do in their most recent , “No Country for Old Men” (a drama about the comedy of death). They have a gift for the absurd and a penchant for cruelty, tendencies that, without the tempering quality of a recognizably human presence — Jeff Bridges’s glorious performance in “Lebowski,” Ms. McDormand’s emotionally nuanced one in “Fargo” — can make the Coens come across as insufferably superior and bullying. Comedy needs fools with funny faces, but comedy without gentleness is often just sadism.
It isn’t that sadism can’t be a laugh riot; it’s just a question of modulation, of balancing the loud yuks and cruel jabs with some delicate feeling, mixing a real face in with the cartoons. Though “Burn After Reading” isn’t as uniformly flat as “The Hudsucker Proxy” (the Coens’ leaden bid for Preston Sturges’s dizziness), there’s a crushing sameness to the characters and their predicaments. With the exceptions of the hard-working supporting cast — notably J. K. Simmons as a C.I.A. bigwig and the equally reliable and welcome Richard Jenkins as a lovelorn gym manager — the characters have been conceived as variations on self-deluded boobishness. Some (like Katie) appear sharper than others, others dumber (Linda), but they’re all punch lines in an overly extended joke.
The biggest punch line is Linda, whom Ms. McDormand plays with a grin that tends to look more like a grimace, perhaps because she’s been saddled with yet another one of the Coens’ ghastly pageboy dos. (Really? Again?) It’s a punishing look for a cruelly unflattering character whose narcissism is matched only by her witlessness. Jerry Lewis has made a brilliant career out of playing stupid, but you never feel as if he loathes his disorderly orderlies because they’re slow on the uptake. The Coens in turn have made their careers with impeccable technique and an exaggerated visual style — they sure love their low-angle shots and traveling cameras — but it’s a wonder they keep making films about a subject for which they often evince so little regard, namely other people.
“Burn After Reading” is rated R (No one under 17 admitted without parent or accompanying adult). Some bloody violence and many expletives.
BURN AFTER READING
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Written, produced and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes.
WITH: George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer), Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke), Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer), John Malkovich (Osborne Cox), Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox), Richard Jenkins (Ted), C.I.A. Superior (J. K. Simmons) and Elizabeth Marvel (Sandy Pfarrer).