No City for Smart Men
The Coens' D.C. Comedy 'Burn After Reading' Never Ignites

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

Washington is a mean little world peopled by third-level bureaucrats, randy federal marshals, over-intellectualized Ivy Leaguers with drinking problems, adulterous pediatricians, process servers, shadowy CIA types, sleazy divorce lawyers, and gym workers selling secrets to the Russians. The whole town is, in fact, a "league of morons."

But you knew that!

Still, this is your nation's capital in "Burn After Reading," the Coen brothers' disappointing follow-up to last year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, "No Country for Old Men." We are relieved to report that not so many of your neighbors get killed by a cattle stun gun. (Relief may vary depending on who your neighbors are.)

A satellite view of the Eastern Seaboard plunges down, down, down into CIA headquarters, where we find that Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is having a lousy day. We would venture to say Osborne has been having a lot of lousy days. A bow-tied and bald CIA analyst on the Balkan desk, he is told in a closed-door session that he is being demoted and transferred, in part because he has a drinking problem.

Outraged, he quits, retreating to his posh Georgetown rowhouse to have a drink and tell his knuckle-busting wife (Tilda Swinton). The bad news is delayed because of a swank affair they're having that evening for Sandy and Harry Pfarrer (Elizabeth Marvel and George Clooney). Sandy's a successful author of children's books; Harry is a U.S. marshal. Harry, though constructing one heck of a present for his wife in their basement, is having an affair with Mrs. Cox.

Osborne Cox, a yacht-owning Princeton alum who's convinced he's the smartest guy in town (we told you this was more fact than fiction), decides to react to this late career crisis by lying around the house in his jammies, drinking and dictating his memoirs. The classified documents he uses for these wind up on a computer disc on the floor of a ladies room in the local Hardbodies Gym, where it comes into the hands of a dense but well-hydrated personal trainer named Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and his ruthlessly upbeat colleague, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand).

Linda wants a life-changing four cosmetic surgeries. Chad wouldn't mind some cash. So they decide to demand a little "good Good Samaritan tax" from Cox for the return of his classified material, or they'll go to the Russians.

Meanwhile, someone is tailing Harry, who has much to hide.

This is sexual farce with the backdrop of Washington as a town of spooks and secrets. When one guy says he's never fired his gun and another guy picks up a hatchet, you just know that not all of the cast is going to make it to the final reel.

This is Joel and Ethan Coen in their violent-goofball-comedy mode, which, when it works, has made them cult favorites since "Raising Arizona" two decades ago and led to their best film, "Fargo." They can also do the dark but entertaining thing, which has led to "Miller's Crossing," "Blood Simple" and "No Country." Sometimes the films land somewhere in between, yielding teeth-grinders such as the "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Ladykillers" or -- gasp -- "Burn."

Oh, the high-octane cast works hard. Clooney throws up his eyebrows and whips out his roguish grin. Malkovich flies into pink-skinned rages. McDormand is desperately perky. Pitt, the best of the lot, gets dimwitted charm into his endless recitation of the name "Osborne Cox."

But there's nothing to suggest anybody off camera tried that hard, which is fatal to a Coen outing. The brothers make their particular magic from a combination of supporting measures that add up to something far more than their parts. Scripts must sparkle with that offbeat voodoo ("Fetch me a toddler, Hi!," in "Arizona," is timeless). There is the blowing fedora in "Miller's Crossing," and its elegiac score, lending a visual and aural poetry to offset the tommy-gun violence. Cult fave "The Big Lebowksi" carries the el-bizarro vision of bowling to dream sequences not readily imagined. Perfect casting in the supporting and bit roles, as in "Fargo," lend energy to throwaway scenes. And the Coens can do the Vibrantly Original Set Piece -- say, the hula hoop craze in "Hudsucker" -- that can almost redeem a turkey.

Here, about an hour in, your popcorn half gone, you get that sinking feeling that it's not going to happen this time around.

What passes for a knee-slapper in the Coens' script is the overmatched Chad calling the volcanic Osborne at 3 in the morning. There's supposed to be something about Washington and secrets and comical paranoia, but it mainly just drifts into people shouting "Who are you working for?" at each other. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who put such wonderful blue-toned hues to "Children of Men," and such energy into "Y Tu Mamá También," has a nifty tracking shot of well-shined wingtips clicking through the marble floors of the CIA, but it's just enough to make you realize how flat everything else is. Ditto with the wonderful J.K. Simmons (here as a CIA chief) and J.R. Horne (the divorce lawyer); when they exit a scene, you'd rather go with them.

"We learned not to do this again," one character observes at the movie's close, though he's not exactly sure what it is they did to set up such a mess.

You can't help but wonder if the Coens meant that line, as well as the title of the script, as a tongue-in-cheek reference to themselves.

Burn After Reading (96 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.

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