The opening shot of the Coen Brothers' new black comedy Burn After Reading takes the viewer from outer space to inside CIA headquarters. The last shot takes us out of that building, back up into space. This device makes it clear that Joel and Ethan are playing God. They have devised a shaggy dog tale where almost every single person acts only in their own self-interest, and nobody gets away unscathed. It's the darkest comedy they've made since Barton Fink, and it might be mistaken for a work of genuine misanthropy if it wasn't so funny.
The complicated -- but never confusing -- plot begins when CIA agent Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) learns from his boss that he is being demoted. Cox quits in a fit of pique, all the while throwing F-bombs around with comfort and authority -- like a Princeton-educated Scorsese gangster. The language, as well as the fact that characters are always saying Osborne's last name, make it clear that right from the beginning that vulgarity is one of the movie's major themes. Upon learning of his unemployment, Cox's wife (Tilda Swinton) hires a lawyer to begin divorce proceedings, a move that eventually leads to a lost CD that may contain sensitive state secrets. That information comes into the hands of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman who needs lots of money in order to reinvent herself with massive amounts of plastic surgery; and her dim best friend, Chad, played with wonderful comic timing by Brad Pitt. Chad swears just as often as Cox does, but for very different reasons. Where Cox's profanity reveals his boundless sense of superiority, Chad simply knows no better way to express himself. When Chad meets face to face with Cox to blackmail him, it's a hilarious clash between an idiot and an a-hole. It would be unfair to reveal how inveterate womanizer Harry (George Clooney) -- and his newest invention -- figure into the plot, because watching this story unfold is so much fun. The movie is written like a screwball comedy, but it's paced like a drama. When audiences might expect the film to build a head of steam like the last half-hour of Raising Arizona, the Coen Brothers refuse to play along. It would appear that they are interested in something more than a straightforward comedy; all of the characters are morally ugly, a fact underscored by the movie's anti-glamorous look -- there is a prominent lack of makeup on just about everybody. The film is populated with realistic grotesques whose selfish, vulgar actions have ramifications that extend far beyond their myopic self-interest. The movie works as a silly R-rated comedy to be sure, but it does have the kick of an adult Grimm Brothers fairy tale with a moral about what awaits those who behave very badly. In its own way, Burn After Reading is as despairing a film about human beings as No Country for Old Men, it just happens to be full of belly laughs rather than existential angst.