A note to the Coen brothers: There’s dry humor, and then there’s just … dryness.
Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones nonetheless: “Burn,” the brothers’ disappointing, largely unfunny follow-up to the flawless “No Country for Old Men,” lacks almost anything that resembles jokes or humor or anything, really, that might elicit more than a few half-hearted smirks. Gone are the zany but mostly on-target insights of The Dude; forgotten are the wild, surreal antics of H.I. McDunnough. What’s left is a whole mess of dry humor that likes, um, humor.
Still, that’s not to say “Burn After Reading” is a total wash. The over-the-top plot — which involves everything from cuckholding to murder to extortion — and a string stellar performances keep “Burn” from falling a notch or two below the Coen brothers’ mediocre ”Intolerable Cruelty.”
Central to this convoluted, tangled mess of a plot is alcoholic misanthrope and ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (a pitch-perfect John Malkovich), who has decided to write a warts-and-all memoir as the ultimate “up yours” to the yes man (David Rasche) who fired him. But the disc containing Cox’s notes ends up on the floor of Hardbodies Gym, where two cheerfully moronic fitness instructors — Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — scoop it up and decide to use it as part of a harebrained blackmail scheme. Litzke intends to use the money for an extreme body makeover (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me,” she matter-of-factly informs her plastic surgeon), while Chad, hyped up on adrenaline and Jamba juice, is thrilled to be part of a plan involving “raw intelligence shit, CIA shit.”
Confused yet? Sit tight; things get even stickier when Linda meets jittery ex-Secret Service agent-turned-weirdo-inventor Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) through an online dating service. Sparks fly, but Harry’s not exactly a free agent: He’s “happily married,” and he has a longtime mistress (an icy, curt Tilda Swinton) who just so happens to be Cox’s disgruntled wife.
Rest assured that there is more, much more, but it will not be revealed here. Part of what limited fun there is in “Burn After Reading” comes from watching the brainless plots and subplots and sub-subplots collapse in on themselves like displaced Jenga blocks or explode with surprising force. All the characters are connected, but they’re all too self-absorbed or brainless to notice — a complete cluster of idiots. Not one of the characters appears to have a single redeeming quality, and so it’s easy to laugh when all the plans fall spectacularly apart.
Which is where the actors come in. With less capable peformers, these characters might seem too larger-than-life, or too one-sided to matter much. Not so in “Burn After Reading,” where a few Coen brothers regulars and newcomers do fine work. Malkovich, with his prickly humor and menacing grin, seems right at home, so much so that it’s a wonder this is his first Coen brothers outing. (He would have fit right in with the “Fargo” cast, eh?) Pitt has loads of fun as Chad, a vapid, gum-smacking fitness guru with nary a thought — original or otherwise — inside his frosted head. (His attempts to “sound official” while blackmailing Malkovich are comedy gold.)
Then come the unexpectedly poignant performances. McDormand, arguably the most underrated actress in Hollywood, hits all the right notes as Linda, a lonely woman whose determination to reinvent herself far exceeds her intelligence or perceptiveness. Her desire for companionship is heartbreaking. Clooney plays Harry as a paranoid, needy, emotionally unstable doofus, a man seeking real intimacy in a series of wham-bam-thank you ma’am flings. His emotional immaturity is infuriating but too human to ignore. What McDormand and Clooney do with these two characters is impressive.
How sad, though, that the same can’t be said of “Burn After Reading.” Next to inventive comedies like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers’ saltine-dry effort feels phoned in.