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Burn After Reading

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, Certificate 15, 96 mins

Intolerable vanity. George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer

The Coen Brothers seemed characteristically non-plussed when their dark existential thriller No Country for Old Men was selected as the Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. You get the sense that they don't particularly care for recognition - they just want to get their films made. Now that, presumably, they have something like carte blanche to do what they like, it's intriguing that they chose to follow such a painfully observed and bleak (but ultimately hopeful - and if you don't believe me, go back and take a long look at the last five minutes of No Country) film with Burn After Reading, near-slapstick satire of the war on terror and consumerist values.

The place is Washington, DC, the time is now, the people are George Clooney's philandering man-child, indulging in an adulterous affair with Tilda Swinton, a professional ice queen married to John Malkovich's paranoid and angry CIA agent; Frances McDormand plays a gym administrator with a cosmetic surgery obsession; her friend Brad Pitt - in a desexualised 'stoopid' (and quite funny) performance - becoming her partner in blackmailing Malkovich for the state secrets they believe he has carelessly let slip into their hands. And that's basically it - simple enough plot, sarcastic execution, some laughs and nasty groans along the way, and then it ends…

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the brothers have either lost their mojo, or are playing one of their notorious games on the audience (for one thing, the 'Roderick Jaynes' credited as editor of all their films is a figment of sibling pranksterist imagination). But there is more here than silliness and high jinks. The film's biggest laugh occurs at the moment when the absence of WMD in Iraq and the sex toys of the modern urban male collide… The joke is hilarious, but there is a sour aftertaste when you realize that the process leading to the war was so surreal that can't actually be adequately satirized.

Every character in the movie cares only about how they look - from McDormand's focus on liposuction to Clooney's adolescent fear that his wife might reject him to Malkovich's desire to be considered a maverick hero, and most especially, the way the 'authorities' prioritize a cover up of their own mistakes. The notion of maintaining your own position at all costs is, of course, not novel, but it has rarely been treated with such coruscating glee as in this film. Yet it's very difficult to care about any of the characters on screen - perhaps because they are so reprehensible and amoral, or perhaps because they remind us too much of our own shadow sides.

More similar in tone to the two Coen Brothers films considered failures - Intolerable Cruelty and their remake of the elegant 1950s Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading suffers from comparison to the brothers' avowed classics The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou for one simple reason: it doesn't like people. But perhaps, in a world of creeping mutual suspicion, where the social contract has broken down, and where individualism is the religion that transcends all others, that's the point.

Gareth Higgins