'Burn After Reading' — And Repeat As Necessary

Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand looking awkward at a big desk i i

Over their heads: Would-be blackmailers (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) learn the CIA can be touchy about secrets. Macall Polay/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Macall Polay/Focus Features
Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand looking awkward at a big desk

Over their heads: Would-be blackmailers (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) learn the CIA can be touchy about secrets.

Macall Polay/Focus Features

Burn After Reading

  • Director: The Coen Brothers
  • Genre: Black Comedy
  • Running Time: 96 minutes

Rated R: Cheating, lying, shooting, cursing, and the occasional mention of sex toys.

The Coen brothers — who won the best-picture Oscar for last year's No Country for Old Men — have such a dark sensibility that someone ought to name a paint color after them. Forget Mustang Tan, Durango Dust and Barleyfield Beige. Say hello to Coen Brothers Black.

And even though their new film Burn After Reading is a comedy, it's a Coen brothers film before anything else. That means it's as bleak and hopeless as comedies are allowed to get before the laughter dies bitterly on your lips.

Like any self-respecting spy movie, Burn After Reading begins at CIA headquarters. A veteran spook (John Malkovich) gets fired from the agency, so he starts writing his memoirs. His lame manuscript accidentally falls into the hands of two Hardbodies fitness center employees, played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand.

These bears of little brain think they have stumbled on raw intelligence data that can be sold to the highest bidder. It takes just one confrontation between an enraged Malkovich and a bemused Pitt to show how wrong, wrong, wrong they are.

Burn After Reading is as much a nightmare as it is a comedy, but it benefits from McDormand's fine comic acting. She plays a woman who lusts after plastic surgery because, as she says, "I've gone as far as I can with this body."

The messes she gets everyone into are so wacky that one exasperated CIA bigwig says, "report back to me when it makes sense." That statement summarizes this archetypal Coen venture as well as anything else can.

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