Picks and Pans Review: Burn After Reading

updated 09/22/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt | R |

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COMEDY
The Stupids would be the perfect title for this movie, if it had not already been claimed by a lousy 1996 comedy starring Tom Arnold. The main characters in this slight offering from Joel and Ethan Coen, the sibling writing-directing duo whose No Country for Old Men took home the Best Picture Oscar last spring, are all total dopes. Their unrelenting dumbness and dim-witted behavior is at first amusing and enjoyable but eventually grows wearing.

Burn After Reading is a sex farce crossed with a Washington, D.C., conspiracy thriller. Angry at being fired from the CIA, an ex-analyst (Malkovich) begins to write a tell-all memoir. Part of his manuscript accidentally falls into the hands of two gym employees (Pitt and McDormand), who reckon it contains top-secret info worth big money. Add a philandering U.S. marshal (Clooney), a snippy pediatrician (Tilda Swinton), Russian diplomats, online dating, extortion and a loaded gun, and you have an uneven movie that can't always decide what or whom it wants to focus on. The fun here is in the performances. The accomplished cast is clearly enjoying itself, with Pitt the standout as a dumbbell-lifting dumbbell. Playing a physical trainer, he manages simultaneously to be delightfully broad and smartly nuanced. Put more simply, he aces chewing gum and acting at the same time.

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