I'm still deciding if "Burn After Reading" is the boldest -- or most boldly stupid -- thing Joel and Ethan Coen have done thus far in their careers.
"Burn" has the Coens doing what they always do after they've made an acclaimed film like last year's Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men": make a straight-up farce. That's what they did a decade ago, when they followed up "Fargo" in 1996 with everyone's favorite stoner film noir "The Big Lebowski."
"Burn" owes a lot more to "Fargo" than it does "Lebowski," with its gallery of characters getting way too deep in a situation that can only lead to a very bad conclusion. First off, we have Osborne Cox (a deliciously profane John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who is relieved of his duties for having a drinking problem. He opts to stay home, drink some more and write a memoir, something that doesn't sit well with his cold, shrewish wife (Tilda Swinton -- of course!). She's ready to divorce the man and continue the affair she's having with Harry (George Clooney, rounding this trilogy of dashing doofuses for the Coens), a persistently armed, sex-crazed treasury agent who is crazy about two things: exercise and Internet dating.
Somehow, someway, a disc containing Cox's financial records (and his first draft) -- which his wife copied off his computer -- ends up on the floor of a fitness center and in the hands of employees Linda (manic Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt, goofy and loving every minute of it). Thinking that the disc contains important government info, they hit up Cox for a "reward" in exchange for returning the disc. That's pretty much where the lunacy starts.
Much like "Pineapple Express" -- which threw simple-minded yahoos into an action film, showing audiences what would really happen if everyday folk like themselves found themselves in a dangerous situation -- "Burn" throws everyday folks into an espionage-thriller. But, as always, the Coens have something else in mind -- "Burn" turns out to be more slyly satirical than it lets on. The Coens create a stable of ridiculous, anxious, usually paranoid characters whose ignorant, incompetent efforts to stay one step ahead of one another reflect the ignorance and incompetence that sadly keeps this country (and its citizens) going.
Equal parts broad and dark, "Burn" is the kind of movie that mocks those who still believe Russia is a threat. When Linda and Chad head over to the Russian embassy to sell the disc, even the Russians can't help looking at them like they just got off the turnip truck. (I couldn't help thinking of Cindy McCain's recent assertion to ABC News that Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin knows something about foreign policy since she lives close to Russia.)
To some, "Burn" may feel like the Coens going on autopilot, as the boys practically lift from their own movies. (One character's gruesome demise may have some "Fargo" fans crying foul). But hasn't the Coens' whole career consisted of making the same movie, about people too pumped up on ego and stubbornness to realize they're making dumb decisions? If that's the case, then "Burn" is pretty much their magnum opus.
Thankfully, the movie is also funny, but in that oh-so-wrong way the Coens seem to be good at. From Pitt's constant use of a four-letter word as a common noun, to Clooney introducing one of his conquests to his homemade invention, to always-on-point character actors David Rasche and J.K. Simmons as dumbfounded CIA guys trying to figure out what exactly is going on, the movie will have you giggling like crazy way after you've left the theater.
While the Coen brothers have shown time and time again that they can make some quality cinema, "Burn After Reading" is a reminder that the boys can come with the stupid just as easily and effectively.