“Hmmm... so when do we make Michael Clayton 2?”
BURN AFTER READING Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand and John Malkovich. An Alliance release. 96 minutes. Opens Friday (September 12). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NN
Coen brothers films play like something they've made just to entertain themselves. Bodies get tossed into wood chippers because that's what makes Joel and Ethan giggle. Any critical acclaim or audience enjoyment is purely coincidental.
That's certainly the case with Burn After Reading.
Weighed down by an all-star cast who seem to be smirking through their straight faces, this overblown ode to idiocy disguised as a satire of a spy thriller is not nearly as amusing as those involved think it is.
George Clooney, for example, demonstrates that his comedic skills really haven't improved much since his days on Facts Of Life. His ability to play a dim bulb never amounts to more than confused, darting eyes and an oddball obsession with home flooring - formica, white pine, marble - and homemade sex contraptions.
His Ocean's Eleven pal, Brad Pitt, is the film's bright spot; he's proven himself to be a savant of a particular kind of idiocy. Here he plays a fitness trainer with blond tips and barely two brain cells to bench press together who gets caught up in a blackmail scheme involving John Malkovich's CIA analyst and Frances McDormand's plastic-surgery-obsessed Internet dater. Not since his True Romance stoner has Pitt given such a delightfully out-there performance.
If only the rest of the cast - Clooney as a philandering federal agent and Tilda Swinton as Malkovich's adulterous ice queen of a wife - had allowed themselves to send up their big-screen images in such zany fashion, there might have been a few more much-needed laughs.
The Coens have a habit of following serious films with a silly one: Blood Simple begat Raising Arizona; Miller's Crossing begat Barton Fink; Fargo begat The Big Lebowski.
So it's no surprise that they follow up the Oscar success of their stark and brutal No Country For Old Men with a comedy.
If only they'd remembered to write something funny.
For example, Malkovich plays an angry eccentric - you can tell because he wears a bow tie that's tied so tightly the veins in his head are about to pop - who's writing his "memwah," the film's McGuffin. But tics and mannerisms are not humour.
Clooney's character keeps saying he's never had to fire his gun in the line of duty, and from that moment on you're just waiting for it to go off. When it does, it fails to deliver the dark laugh that surely tickled the Coens' funny bone behind the camera.
"You're a sick fuck, Fink," is one of my favourite lines of movie dialogue.
Sadly, there's nothing as memorable in Burn After Reading, which I shall forever refer to as Burn Before Watching.