Burn After Reading

Rated 3.0

The latest Coen brothers concoction is a hit-and-miss operation, and at a brisk 91 minutes, the unevenness and even the outlandishness of everything—plot, character, humor—remain part of the fun, more or less. It seems no accident that the story comes to an abrupt and flippantly inconclusive halt at just the point where its extravagances of bedroom farce and lethally covert intrigue begin to spin almost entirely out of control for everyone involved. The disgruntled ex-spy, John Malkovich as the most authoritative and articulate of the film’s paranoid nut jobs, launches a tirade against the “league of morons” he assumes are persecuting him, thus supplying the film with the first and perhaps best of its unofficial mottos and prickly half-truths. But it is left to one of the CIA honchos (J.K. Simmons) to speak the movie’s own scatologically self-referential summation: “Jesus, what a clusterfuck!” Malkovich’s performance struck me as the best in the film, the one full-bodied combination of the Coens’ comic lunacy with their darker themes. The four other leading players—Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney and Frances McDormand—all have their moments, but each gets mired in one way or another in the Coens’ penchant for cartoonish caricature.