Just in case we thought that the smash success of Joel and Ethan Cohen's Oscar-winning instant classic No Country for Old Men had elevated them to some new plateau of serious filmmaking, they turn around and dash off an enjoyably disposable dose of comedy fluff, every bit as zany as anything in their long career. Don't be fooled: Burn After Reading is a farce, but as bleak, casually cruel and existential as you'll ever see in America cinema. It's a tempest in a teapot, but that pot is brewing up a batch of strychnine.
The plot expands on the old maxim that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, beginning with the incomparable John Malkovich's Osborne Cox, a mid-level CIA desk jock forcibly ejected from the endless hallways of bureaucracy. His bosses pin his sacking on a "drinking problem," which he hilariously refutes by saying to one, "You're a Mormon. Next to you, we all have a drinking problem!" but he doesn't stop there, flinging off obscenities that prove he's a bit unhinged, and not all that vital to the nation's security. His relative irrelevance is lost on the nitwits at Hardbodies gym, who find a rough draft of Ozzie's memoir on the locker room floor, and confuse it for major trade secrets. Middle-aged trainer Linda Litzke (the incomparable Frances McDormand) sees this dossier as the leverage she needs to pay for the extensive lipo and fanny lift she so desperately wants. She enlists her airhead buddy Chad (Brad Pitt) to help her shop the disc to the highest bidder, and they begin poking their noses into places two people this dim should never dare, beginning with blackmailing the author. Meanwhile Ozzie is getting pinched on the home front by his cheating wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), played with an even more bone-chilling stare than she flashed as the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. She's busy getting it on with her Michael Clayton co-star George Clooney, a womanizing federal marshal without a clue, even while dating Linda on the side and getting tailed by mystery men.
Revealing more plot would spoil the joke, though it's obvious that all of these clods aren't who they think they are, and all of them are in way over their empty little heads. It's an intricate web of nonsense, held to together by the thinnest strands, made sticky only by Cohen's peculiar magic, and by the cast's force of will.
Want to watch top-shelf actors having a blast? Here's the place, with all the stars in effortless, championship form. Pitt and Clooney are all too happy to send up their matinee images, with Brad as a blond-pompadour-sporting himbo gloriously bopping to some silly rhythm in his head, and Clooney finding a new way to make a smooth ladies' man into a secretly wobbling nerd. The supporting cast is equally stocked with character killers like J.K Simmons, Richard Jenkins and David Rasche who serve as a hilarious Greek chorus to the confused mayhem. One snag: The mayhem occasionally turns brutal, and undeserving characters meet nasty ends, which undercuts the comedic flow. Even if it's a lesser Cohen bro's effort, below Lebowski but ahead of drek like The Ladykillers, it's still about the most fun you can have peeking into the exquisite black nothing of the human heart.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.