What do you get when you throw a cast of A-list actors into a film where they all play losers swept up in an intricate yet pointless spy plot? Well, mostly you just get a pointless spy plot.
After last year's outstanding but weighty "No Country for Old Men," Joel and Ethan Coen lighten up with "Burn After Reading," an understated parody of spy movies with a comically complex plot.
Vacuous personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and his body-obsessed co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) believe they have found a disk with intelligence information on it, so they attempt to blackmail the owner of the disk, recently fired CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich).
Osborne's life is falling apart in a number of ways. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is leaving him so she can be with her lover, former security agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).
Osborne refuses to play the fool in Chad and Linda's scheme, Harry and Linda begin dating via an Internet matching site, and in classic spy movie tradition, the whole thing becomes so elaborate it's almost indecipherable.
What does all this boil down to? A couple of moronic amateurs enter the cloak-and-dagger game, which sets off an absurd chain of events among a handful of equally moronic intelligence professionals. When the bodies begin to pile up, two unnamed CIA superiors (David Rasche and J.K. Simmons) try to clean up the mess and make sense of it all.
Be aware: this is not "Ocean's Fourteen." Or "Austin Powers." This is the Coens, so expect the unexpected.
There are a few "big" moments of broad, fast-paced humor, but for the most part, the brothers are subtly mocking the self-importance of recent spy yarns like the Bourne movies and "Michael Clayton" (that comparison is a no-brainer, with Swinton and Clooney in both films).
The tone here is low key. There's very little physical comedy, and it never strives for the silliness of "Raising Arizona" or "The Big Lebowski."
In fact, the movie might be too smart for its own good. It's clever but delivers too few laughs.
Much of the comedy relies on famous actors acting idiotic. This definitely has its charm, but it shows a distinct lack of quality writing from two of the most distinctive, quality writers in American movies.
Malkovich is at his self-parodying best, Clooney does his "O Brother" brand of screwball and Swinton hits the bull's-eye with her alpha-female career gal. Pitt does fine, but aside from bad highlights and personal trainer jokes, he doesn't get to do much.
Surprisingly, Simmons and Rasche eventually steal the movie as they try to sort out the mess that the main characters create (only somewhat surprising, since they are both outstanding character actors).
Most spy films weave an intricate plot around some crucial truth about how nations deal with each other. The maneuvering and manipulation become so convoluted and absurd that viewers need a score card. Which is fun, if you like that sort of thing. I do.
The big joke in "Burn After Reading" is at the core of the intricate plot, where a handful of idiots are merely playing - badly - the romanticized game of espionage. There is no crucial truth, only the absurd game itself.
It's a great idea and a great cast that should have been good for more laughs.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.