Focus Features
Brad Pitt stars in "Burn After Reading." Pitt is amusing as a clueless fitness club employee. His performance is the film's biggest asset.
BURN AFTER READING — ** 1/2 — John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, George Clooney; rated R (profanity, violence, vulgarity, sex, gore, brief nudity, slurs)

You have to hand it to the Coen brothers. Even their cinematic "failures" are pretty interesting.

And their latest big-screen venture, the watchable but muddled "Burn After Reading," fails in several respects. For one thing, it pales in comparison to their previous film, the Oscar-winning adaptation of "No Country for Old Men." That was one of the most assured, consistent movies they've made.

However, this inconsistent, cheeky dark comedy bears little resemblance to that earlier movie — at least for the first two-thirds. There's some nastiness and unpleasantness in the final third that feels similar to "No Country's" unsettling tone.

To be fair, the film has a few laughs and some good performances that make up for some of its confused and confusing plot.

John Malkovich stars as Osborne "Ozzie" Cox, a veteran CIA analyst who's just quit his job after being demoted. His marriage to cold fish pediatrician Katie (Tilda Swinton) is also on the rocks.

So the booze-soaked, foul-mouthed Ozzie is now planning to write his memoirs, though somehow that information has fallen into the hands of two fitness club employees, Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand).

The two think Ozzie's manuscript notes are top-secret information that they can sell for cash. The vain, middle-age Linda is hoping to get some cosmetic surgery with her share of the blackmail loot.

Meanwhile, married U.S. Treasury Department agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is fooling around with both Katie and Linda, and he is convinced that he's being followed by the increasingly unhinged Ozzie.

None of these characters are particularly likable, save for maybe Pitt's clueless, dopey Chad. He's amusing and is easily the film's biggest asset.

Also, it is always nice to see character actors Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons. They pop up in small supporting roles, as McDormand's lovelorn boss and a peeved CIA higher-up, respectively.

"Burn After Reading" is rated R for strong sexual language (profanity and suggestive slang), some brief but disturbing violence (a shooting, an ax attack and vehicular mayhem), crude sexual humor, simulated sex (some of it overheard or implied), gore and blood, brief nudity (nude art and a nude prop), and some derogatory slurs and language. Running time: 97 minutes.

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