In the opening scene of the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, the camera takes a long drop down from space, then lands in a hallway at CIA headquarters. It's found a true corridor of power, a place for people who know what's happening and can make the world move in the direction they choose. The film doesn't linger; its business lies elsewhere, in places where people have learned just enough to obscure the fact that they don't really know anything at all.
One such place: a gym called Hardbodies, employer of a lonely woman (Frances McDormand) who can't fathom why her HMO doesn't cover the extensive plastic surgery she believes she needs, and a dim fitness instructor (Brad Pitt) who thinks they might earn some leverage after finding a CD filled with secret-looking "shit." Said shit actually belongs to John Malkovich, a disgraced ex-CIA agent now working halfheartedly on his memoirs (a word he's careful to pronounce with the proper French inflection). McDormand and Pitt's incompetent attempts to extort Malkovich, and Malkovich's nearly as incompetent attempts to rebuff their efforts, keep the Coens' shaggy-dog tale rolling. Eventually, it draws in George Clooney's boyishly enthusiastic adulterer and one of his lovers, Tilda Swinton, who's also Malkovich's calculating wife.
Shadowing the spy genre from a disrespectful distance, the Coens have created a kind of reverse Parallax View, in which there's usually less going on than meets the eye. The punchline comes about halfway through with a scene that reveals just how inconsequential its characters' acts of subterfuge and misdirection look in the grand scheme of things. It's a thin joke, but a clever one, though Burn occasionally feels like an excuse for the cast to deliver broad comic performances that wouldn't really fit anywhere else. It ultimately looks like a collection of moments woven together by a ridiculous-by-design plot, but at least they're almost uniformly funny.
Still, this feels like a second-shelf Coen comedy, particularly when compared to their no-less-shaggy The Big Lebowski. It might simply be that, unlike Lebowski, it lacks a strong protagonist, presenting a world of stupidly dangerous characters driven by unenlightened self-interest, without even Jeff Bridges' voice of stoned reason. The final scene, which makes the end of No Country For Old Men look indulgent, concludes it all with a shrug, as if the silliness could stop whenever, so it might as well stop now. Which is fine. Burn's land of the perpetually deluded works as an amusing place to visit, but an even better place to flee.