Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking siblings, have a niche. They make crime films. Specifically, they make crime capers, mostly comedies, about bumbling criminals who make mistakes. These mistakes generally have dire consequences, both for the criminals and for the various bystanders who get pulled into the ironical Coen vortex of multiplied miscalculation. The Coens sometimes make masterpieces (Fargo and No Country for Old Men), and sometimes they make movies that are a lot of fun (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski), and sometimes they make movies that are kinda fun, but which suffer a bit from the Coens' cool detachment and misanthropy. Burn After Reading falls into that last category. Not the best of the Coens -- it's a crime/espionage caper in which the bumbling criminals get no love from the filmmakers -- but it's adequately entertaining.
Burn After Reading features a lot of bad hair. Brad Pitt's got a poofy, bleachy-tipped skunk 'do. Frances McDormand's got a blonde pageboy bob that's just a hair better than the scary bob sported by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Pitt's Chad Feldheimer is a personal trainer at a gym called Hardbodies -- he's a fitness-obsessed airhead who's big on hydrating. Pitt brings a funny, dopey sweetness to Chad -- he frequently shines in roles as the energetic sidekick, and he, along with Richard Jenkins (as Ted, the lovelorn, melancholy manager of Hardbodies) gives Burn After Reading a bit of heart and human interest in what is otherwise a frantic, complicated tangle of sex, lies, deceit, vanity, money, and bad intentions. McDormand's Linda Litzke works at Hardbodies too, although she doesn't appear to do anything but make personal phone calls, mostly to complain to her insurance company because they won't pay for the cosmetic surgery she is convinced will change her life. Linda is the unlikely and highly unqualified criminal mastermind of Burn After Reading. Her motive is a grim combination of narcissism and self-loathing, goosed by loneliness and a mania for self-improvement. The attempted crime is simple extortion -- a disk containing possible top secret spy information is found in the gym.
The victim is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an ex-CIA analyst now writing his memoirs. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney, playing his third Coen movie idiot), a U.S. marshal and playboy who likes to jog after his sexual assignations. Apparently everybody knows everybody here in the buffoon-filled 'burbs of Washington, DC, so the various parties all become ensnared, in one way or another, in a tangled web of coincidence, contrivance and conceit. (J.K. Simmons is a hoot in a small part as a CIA chief trying to untangle the mess and apply some high level Cover-Your-Assification to it.) Bad things happen, although they happen more because of bad luck and bad timing than bad will. Cruelty and absurdity are the Coen comedy doctrine: the (relatively) innocent suffer the most, and mostly by misadventure.
The Coens, as always, demonstrate visual cleverness and fine craft, but this spoofy spy caper could stand a few real characters and real connections. Instead, it's a clever catalogue of caricatures that's more self-amused than amusing.