Burn After Reading ★★½

The movies of Joel and Ethan Coen often have a puzzle-like quality to them. Using genre as a cloak, they tend to assemble an eccentric collection of characters that hints at something else going on. It's often just as rewarding to dive into the Coens' playful intentions as it is to engage the comedy at the surface. The primary puzzle that Burn After Reading presents, however, is why so little of it works. As a fan of both the Coens and spy films, Burn After Reading would seem to hold a deep reserve of natural appeal for me, but on this second viewing, just like the first, I tuned out its abrasive chaos after a half hour and could only offer the most superficial interest in the rest. I suppose that Burn After Reading is intended as a sharp rant aimed at the self-important, amoral and often incompetent bureaucrats populating Washington D.C., but with every character cartoonish and frequently shrill, their point is made too well too early, begging the question of why anyone would want to spend further time in their company. As this same complaint could be made with regard to most Coen Brothers movies, what makes those others work and Burn After Reading fail? In their best films, there is a principle or innocence to most of their characters that make them appealing despite their many loud flaws. Even Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo has a pathetic sincerity that make his hopelessness pitiable rather than obnoxious. The best Burn After Reading can offer is John Malkovich's indignant ex-CIA analyst, who suffers transgressions that would earn most characters a sliver of sympathy, but even he is aggressively prickish. We get it: DC is full of ass-headed, narcissistic opportunists who will gladly eat up and spit out anyone who shows a naive glimmer of generosity or feeling. Watching those people yell their way through a comedy of errors is dull and unpleasant.