Masters of the carefully crafted cheap shot, Joel and Ethan Coen have built a career on flippancy. Given their refusal to take anything seriously — least of all the enthusiasm of their fans — the brothers surely got a chuckle from an upcoming academic tome, The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers: "Once again, Kierkegaard's distinction between the aesthetic and ethical points of view is instructive in understanding [O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s] apparently unresolved comic conclusion," writes one contributor.
Either/or notwithstanding, I'd say that, at least in Coenville (where the motto is "What Fools These Hegelians Be"), the aesthetic regularly and resoundingly trumps the ethical. Following their multiple-Oscar-winning, critically acclaimed literary adaptation No Country for Old Men, the Coens return to familiar territory with the parody thriller Burn After Reading, a characteristically supercilious and crisply shot clown show filled with cartoon perfs and predicated on extravagant stupidity.
Taking aim at the CIA as well as Washington-paranoia flicks in general, Burn After Reading's filmmaking is as svelte as its attitude is snarky. For openers, the camera descends (or Coen-descends) from an Olympian altitude, high over America, to the corridors of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and scurries into an office where intelligence reader Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is being taken off the Balkan desk. (Much entertaining banter: "You have a drinking problem," one nerdy suit informs the irate Cox. "Fuck you, Peck — you're a Mormon," he replies by way of tendering a resignation.) Then it's back home to Georgetown. Osborne barely has time to hit the vodka before his nightmare wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), embroils him in her frenzied preparations for the evening's cocktail party, whose guests include her ex-Secret Serviceman lover, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).
Although initially too crazed to focus on hubby's catastrophe, Katie is soon sneaking off for a divorce consultation while Osborne seeks consolation in the idea of punishing the CIA with a tell-all memoir. He lounges around the basement, dictating his book into a tape recorder when he's not watching Family Feud or attending a boozy Princeton reunion. Somehow, some of it winds up on a computer disc and, at length, the Coens introduce their final complication: Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), two employees at the Hard Bodies gym who discover Osborne's disc and embark upon a comically bungled — but inevitably and increasingly violent — shakedown.
Say this for the Coen aesthetic: There's nothing these boys can't hold up to ridicule. Murder — the more cold-blooded, the better — is usually a laugh line; anti-Semitic stereotypes were played for yocks in Barton Fink; lynching was a gag in O Brother, Where Art Thou? McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen and, once upon a time in Fargo, played one of the few likable characters in the Coen oeuvre, is relentlessly punished here. It's the brothers' heartfelt nihilism that made No Country for Old Men so convincing. As long as it looks good....
Which, in this case, it does. Burn After Reading maps a world of spies, cheats and schemers, with everyone under some sort of surveillance and every dog chasing its own tail. The conspiracy here is one of dunces, or as Osborne exclaims upon surprising one intruder in his basement: "You're part of a league of morons!" Each of the five principals is a broadly played, dim-witted grotesque wearing his or her own distinctively stricken Kabuki mask. Clooney plays dumb and Pitt plays dumber, but — pop-eyed and motor-mouthed, her every facial twitch seemingly prompted by an off-screen cattle prod — McDormand is triumphantly dumbest as a ridiculously self-assured nudnik obsessed with financing a complete surgical makeover. Swinton's scary shrew, revealed in one of the movie's funniest gags as the world's meanest pediatrician, is restrained by comparison, as is Malkovich's increasingly hysterical old-school spook, complete with polka-dot bow tie. To provide further comic distance, everything is reported back to an incredulous CIA chief (Juno's dad, J.K. Simmons), who orchestrates the necessary coverup.
Still, ethics more than aesthetics demand that a successful Coen film — namely The Big Lebowski — include at least one minimally sympathetic link on its chain of fools. Clooney's amiably rancid charm doesn't quite serve; hence, Burn After Reading is a comedy without consequences. "Jesus, what a clusterfuck!" Simmons exclaims, cueing the Coens' camera to beat a hasty retreat back into outer space. It's the last word, and the blurb that Burn After Reading deserves.