It really must be nice to be the Coens. What they've essentially done with "Burn After Reading" is enlisted as many of their A-list buddies as they could wrangle into what is easily one of their most nihilistic flicks - and probably one for devoted Coen fans only (of which I'm surely one.)
It's not that their twisted spy caper has no plot. It does, filled with the usual kind of Coen brothers' characters who are not terribly bright and almost always out to serve nothing but their own interest. As with "No Country for Old Men" and all their best flicks (which this isn't quite among), they've taken a conventional genre and added enough of their touches to make it a nasty little world that only they could create (even if in this case it's more than a little too close to the surveillance-crazy one we live in now.)
But this flick otherwise couldn't possibly be much different than the Coens' Oscar-winning triumph, and that's certainly something that should be celebrated. Despite its endearingly despicable characters, this is a screwball comedy until it comes to its inevitably bloody end, so the bottom line question is is it funny?
Well, after a slow start, the answer is very often yes, and thanks much more to Brad Pitt than I would have guessed. Judging from the trailers only, I expected to find his personal trainer to simply be annoying, but he's one of those Coen idiots that the brothers love to create, and Pitt jumps into it with gusto and steals just about every scene he's in. He doesn't quite go, as Robert Downey Jr. put it in "Tropic Thunder," "full retard," but it's pretty darn close and just very funny, especially when he's confronted with John Malkovich's CIA agent Ozzie Cox, who's as crazy as Pitt's Chad is stupid.
And what heart there is in all this darkness comes from Frances McDormand's obsession with plastic surgery in her quest for love and Richard Jenkins as the boss who loves her though she completely fails to notice. Without telling you any more to spoil this odd little flick, it may be the theft of intelligence from Malkovich's ousted spook that offers the semblance of a plot, but it's the three employees of the Hardbodies gym - Pitt, McDormand and Jenkins - that give the violence we all know is coming as much resonance as would be possible in such a wacky movie. (Jenkins, by the way, is just someone I always like to see, so I've just added last year's "The Visitor" to my Netflix queue to make up for overlooking that flick he toplined.)
In the end, it all really adds up to "no biggie," as JK Simmons's sardonic CIA supervisor says in wrapping it all up, but so what? It's not transcendent in the least and not quite the commentary on our current state of affairs that the Coens may have intended, but as a 90-minute lark with a dark wink, I'll take it and enjoy it. And they can always get "Serious" again next year with a flick about judaism and morality starring Richard Kind, so just take this little side trip while you can.