You know those film school assignments where a student is given two minutes of footage and told to turn that two minutes into a comedy and then a drama and then a thriller by using different music and editing techniques? (If you’ve seen those fake trailers on YouTube, where “The Shining” is turned into a heartwarming family comedy or “West Side Story” becomes a zombie flick, you know the drill.)
“Burn After Reading,” the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to their Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men,” feels like an oddly tentative mix of genres; one gets the impression that with just a few cuts, the film could be a gut-busting laugh riot or a taut bit of suspense. What actually wound up on screen, however, feels like all and none of the above at the same time. You’ll find yourself waiting for the comedy to kick in, or for the serious stuff to get more serious, but the movie timidly avoids both ends of the pool, floating listlessly before it finally sinks below the surface.
The plot is set in motion when CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) gets fired because of his alcoholism. (One of the film’s few laughs comes from Cox’s response to the co-worker who breaks the news: “I have a drinking problem? You’re a Mormon — compared to you, we all do!”)
Cox decides to write a memoir (even though he pretentiously mispronounces the word) but remains oblivious to the fact that his tightly wound wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is cheating on him with twitchy federal marshal Harry (George Clooney), who has a penchant for erotic hardware and infidelity.
Meanwhile, gym employee Linda (Frances McDormand) is frustrated by her HMO’s refusal to pay for her plastic surgery, but when the janitor finds a computer disk in the locker room loaded with what her boneheaded co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) calls “high-level intelligence s--t,” she hatches a plot to blackmail Cox.
The characters’ schemes, lies and subterfuge, naturally, spin wildly out of control, but so, unfortunately, does “Burn After Reading.” The characters and situations at play here could easily have been the basis for a black-hearted farce, but the Coens miscalculate what they’ve got and wind up with a shrill, frantic comedy about morons and jerks doing ridiculous things. (Even the supposedly intelligent characters are selfish and awful, resulting in behavior that’s just as ludicrous as that of their dopier counterparts.)
McDormand tears into the material, at least, and Clooney tries to mine some sort of oddball gems from what he’s given to play. But the script is so meandering and undisciplined that it defeats all the actors, even Pitt, Malkovich and Swinton, all reduced to playing one-note bozos.
The only scenes that really work are the deadpan exchanges between CIA higher-ups David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, who basically explain the plot to each other with increasing incredulity. It might have behooved the Coens to have had that same conversation.