It’s a pseudo-Darwinian world in “Burn After Reading.” One in which only the most tenacious — not the most well-intentioned or able-bodied, and certainly not the most intelligent — survive what shakes out to be a vicious circle of happenstance.
From the minds of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (of “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men” fame) comes this Seinfeldian farce about what happens when moronic, self-obsessed citizens get mixed up in quasi-official CIA business.
Really, it’s an arbitrary tale that spirals from the funny to the inane about a bunch of riffraff who, er, ingested too many paint chips, if you catch my drift.
The black comedy begins with the firing of alcoholic CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), who plans his retaliation in the form of a tell-all memoir about his sordid career experiences (see: Malkovich’s constant pronunciation of the word memoir as “mem-wah,” which is proof enough how highly this character deems himself despite no one else taking him seriously.)
Cox’s icy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), meanwhile, is carrying on an affair with Harry (George Clooney), a sex-obsessed federal employee who continually cheats on his own spouse with women he meets online.
But things get interesting when a disc containing Osborne’s “mem-wah” is accidentally left in a Hardbodies Fitness Center, where employees Linda and Chad (Francis McDormand and Brad Pitt) think they’ve discovered Top-Secret ‘stuff’ — referred to constantly and hilariously throughout the film by Chad as another “s” word. The two decide to engage in an info-napping scheme with clownish, sophomoric glee, she pursuing a constant quest to fund cosmetic surgeries her insurance won’t pay for and he, a clueless, twitchy sidekick infatuated with the chance at espionage. McDormand’s and Pitt’s dimwitted banter is the highlight of the film; the pair’s initial call to Osborne in demand of ransom is, in itself, nearly worth the ticket price.
But unfortunately for paying viewers “Burn” soon deteriorates to a string of sketch comedy-like scenes featuring the out-of-hand actions of blithering idiots. The plot becomes wearing, making its 96 minutes feel longer than they should, and anyone thrown by the off-screen exit of a major “No Country” character can be sure to be dismantled once again, as most of the leads conclude their journeys only through a summary narrative played out by two bewildered CIA superiors (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons).
“Report back to me when it, I don’t know, makes sense,” says one flustered official to the other. Perhaps the Coen brothers could do the same.