NEW AT THE MOVIES: 'Burn After Reading'
Courtesy of Macall Polay/Focus Features, George Clooney and Frances McDormand star in Joel and Ethan Coen's dark spy comedy "Burn After Reading."

Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence. 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.

The latest offering by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Burn After Reading,” is not to be taken seriously — one look at Brad Pitt’s blond-streaked pouf of hair tells you that — and it’s certainly not to be compared to their starkly violent Academy Award-winner from last year, “No Country for Old Men.”

Having said that, it is by no means a letdown as a follow-up.

The filmmakers take their eye for regional detail to Washington for what looks like an espionage thriller, except that the spying uncovers no significant information, everybody is clueless and no one is ever truly in danger.

John Malkovich, as a fired CIA analyst whose memoir falls into the wrong hands, is a hilarious marvel of precise, percolating rage. The Coens’ old pal, George Clooney, is almost as much of a buffoon here as he was in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

But Pitt steals every scene in which he appears as an overgrown child of a gym trainer whose bungled schemes get him in way over his head.

Malkovich’s Osborne Cox, who would obviously be a pompous prig even without his signature bow tie, is forced from his job at the Central Intelligence Agency.

So Osborne storms home to Georgetown to drink and begin his memoir and drink some more. His wife Katie, played with icy impatience by Tilda Swinton, was already disgusted with him before he got the ax, as evidenced by her affair with Harry (Clooney), a married federal marshal who is proud to report that he’s never had to fire his weapon in 20 years of service.

For reasons that eventually will become clear, the disc containing Osborne’s first draft lands in the laps of a couple of bumbling employees at the suburban Hardbodies Fitness Center: Chad and the high-strung and highly insecure Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who hatch a plan to blackmail Osborne over the classified secrets they think they’ve uncovered.

Linda wants the money for the various plastic surgeries she insists will make her happy and complete, and will allow her to stop trolling for dates on the Internet. And Chad wants the money for … who knows? All he does is work out.

They’re all so busy trying to be someone they’re not, to be smart, sophisticated, somehow better, that their connection with reality is tenuous at best.

JK Simmons, who has only a couple of scenes as a CIA official, but they’re memorable, puts it best when he says dryly to Osborne’s boss: “Report back to me when … I don’t know. When it makes sense.”

Sure thing. Good luck with all that.


Rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking. 114 min. One and a half stars out of four.

Somehow, Diane English has managed to make the “Sex and the City” movie look like a documentary.

“The Women” was intended as a satire of society mavens and their frivolous lives; in directing for the first time and writing the script, the “Murphy Brown” creator has turned it into a celebration.

Meg Ryan stars in the Norma Shearer role as Mary Haines, a wealthy Connecticut wife and mother who learns that her husband is having an affair.

The other woman? Still the perfume girl at the Saks Fifth Avenue cosmetics counter, the role that helped catapult Joan Crawford to fame, played here with cartoony va-va-voominess by Eva Mendes.

Mary’s friends, including magazine editor Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening), rally around her in her time of need, offering snappy one-liners and broad facial expressions. Debra Messing’s character gets little more to do than pop out babies, which sets up the kind of lazy ending you’d find in the most hackneyed chick flick.

English’s “Murphy Brown” star Candice Bergen and Cloris Leachman briefly liven and class things up as Mary’s mother and housekeeper, respectively.

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