"This is a man practiced in deceit," says one character of another in Burn After Reading. "It's almost his job." Deceit is very much the job of the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen. It's as if, after winning two fat Oscars (best picture and director) for their fairly straightforward adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, the brothers needed to reassert their old capricious cunning, their weasily larkishness, their independence from easy acclaim. "Just because you agree with the Academy that we made the best film of 2007," they seem to be warning their fans, "don't think you're any closer to figuring out our motives. We're still tough to get. Deceit is our job, our pleasure and your challenge."
In this desultory spy caper - which had its world premiere as the opening night selection at the Venice Film Festival, and will play the Toronto Film Festival later this week - they take George Clooney and Brad Pitt, those modern icons of sex and savoir-faire, drop them in the world of Washington, D.C., espionage, then keep ratcheting down their emotional IQs. They turn Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen off-screen) into a mad-man loser with a severe self-image problem. The characters' lives get more desperate as the camera style retains its affectless sheen.
So the viewer's fun, such as it is, comes from guessing where the movie is headed and why it's going there. The ultimate question, from this admirer of virtually all the brothers' work, from the early Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing to their previous Clooney collaborations O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, is a plaintive "What the heck kind of film is this?"
As close to an answer as you'll get here is that Burn After Reading is an essay in the cocoon of ignorance most of us live in. It pushes the old form of movie comedy - smart people saying clever things- into collision with today's dominant model of slackers whose utterly unfounded egotism eventually worms its way into an audience's indulgence. Which is to say that most of the people here seem like bright lights but are actually dim bulbs. They're not falling-down stupid; they radiate the subtler variety of idiocy that can be mistaken for charm, decency or even brilliance.
That's certainly true of the CIA analyst played by John Malkovich. Osborne Cox: his very name is steeped in two denominations of old money. After decades at the Agency, he has perfected the look and the attitude of a career spook. He wears a smart dark suit and that inevitable flourish of the house eccentric, a bow tie. Osborne's Olympian contempt for his superiors, his overcareful pronunciation of French words ("mem-wah"), the modest shock value of a Princeton man spicing every sentence with the f-word - all these mark him as hailing from that generation and class of American spies who considered themselves more knowledgeable, hard-thinking and highly pedigreed than the politicians they worked for, yet who managed to miss the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international ambitions of al-Qaeda and the existence in their midst of Soviet-paid moles like Aldrich Ames.
Read the full review by Richard Corliss on TIME.com: