George Clooney, in 'Burn After Reading'

Dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
(R) ★ ½

Seldom has a movie that started with such intrigue ended as such piffle. Burn After Reading is too grim to work as comedy, too arch to work as drama, too senseless to work as a story, and too thoughtless to work as satire. The longer it goes on, the less of it there is, until it vanishes into thin air. It has nothing to say, nothing to show, and precious little to entertain us by. The emperor has no clothes, and there’s no emperor either.

The film draws us in immediately, with rapid footfalls that echo through a long corridor as CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) makes his way to an office, where he will be ambushed with the news that he has been fired. There is no exposition; we do not know what led to this scene or where it will lead. There’s an underlying mystery in the early going as we are introduced to characters and wonder how it will all connect, until we realize that none of it will connect.

There is Osbourne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is having an affair with a married man, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who in turn is having multiple affairs through an internet dating service. One of the women he meets is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a physical trainer at a gym; Linda is too dim to realize that her manager, Ted (Richard Jenkins), is in love with her, and Ted is too dim to realize he’s better off without her. There’s a third character at the gym: Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — that a character with that name is played by that actor tells you all you need to know about the casting. Tell you that he spends most of the film dressed in Lycra and I’ve given away the whole joke.

Chad and Linda stumble upon a CD filled with what they believe to be sensitive government secrets. Instead of destroying it, they decide to blackmail its owner, Osbourne, in the hopes of collecting a handsome reward. The rest of the film is a merry-go-round of covert liaisons involving the retrieval of the CD and the myriad infidelities. Funny thing about a merry-go-round, though — you’re always moving, but you never get anywhere.

Two characters observe the action from afar. Credited only as “CIA Officer” (David Rasche) and “CIA Superior” (J.K. Simmons), they meet periodically to discuss developments in the plot. The officer relays the information, and the superior regards it with a puzzled look, struggling to understand what it means and why it matters. He speaks for the audience.

This mess was perpetrated by the Coen brothers, whose previous film, No Country for Old Men, was at the top of my list of the best films of 2007 and won them three Oscars, including Best Picture. Their screenplay for Burn develops a few interesting characters, but they willfully, almost maliciously squander them. The most frequent criticism of the Coens I encounter is that they condescend to their characters; this is unfounded for a masterpiece such as No Country, but there are films where I can see where they’re coming from, even though I disagree (Fargo). Burn, however, demonstrates a mean-spiritedness that is indefensible.

There comes a moment of extreme violence that completely forfeits their claim to comedy — I won’t reveal it, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s not funny. Nothing that comes after it can be funny. For filmmakers who swept the previous awards season with a drama so insightful about the nature of violence, it represents a profound lapse in judgment. And it’s so cavalier that it shocks the conscience.

It would be bad enough if the film had a purpose, but it doesn’t. It ends with such a shrug that it made me angry — angry that it wasted my time, angry that it wasted the time of its cast, which includes three Oscar-winners and two who are nominated this year. I was angry that the Coens wasted their own time. They’re better than this.