‘Burn After Reading’ star-studded letdown

Ben Raymond

When I was young, I never judged a book by its cover.

Why not? Because “Reading Rainbow” told me not to, that’s why.

But then I started to think about it.

Why shouldn’t I judge a book by its cover? This book is orange … I like orange … this book must be awesome.

But walking out of last week’s press screening of the Coen brothers’ latest film “Burn After Reading,” I found myself testing my childish denial of these grandfatherly words of wisdom.

With an immaculate cast under the direction of two of cinema’s finest auteurs, “Burn After Reading” appeared to have all the makings of a winner.

But that’s only judging the book by its cover, or rather the film by its … poster?

“Burn After Reading” is a stupifying, disorderly madcap comedy that, in trying to do anything and everything at once, does little to nothing well.

I guess “Reading Rainbow” was right.

Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) has been fired from his high-clearance position at the CIA as his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) prepares to leave him for her spastic ex-government lover (George Clooney).

When Katie leaves Osborne’s private financial information at a local gym, eccentric trainers (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) attempt to blackmail Cox for the misplaced files, all with potentially drastic consequences.

The Coen brothers are a directing duo in a constant state of reinvention.

As if cooperatively possessing multiple personalities, they bounce from one genre to the next with nearly every new film.

There’s the “Barton Fink” /”Fargo” Coens, the “Blood Simple”/ “No Country for Old Men” Coens and the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”/”The Big Lebowski” Coens.

Heading into the screening, I hoped I wouldn’t see the “Intolerable Cruelty”/”The Ladykillers” Coens.

Unfortunately, “Burn After Reading” is a confusing, mostly spineless picture in complete narrative disarray.

Clooney is at his most impotent form in years.

His spasmodic thrusts at sexuality have roughly the same chance at satisfaction as an overdone piece of linguini.

Swinton surrenders a performance only slightly more unremarkable than the one that tossed her up an Oscar this past year.

Her performance made me angry – a sly cockney accent, wraithlike beauty and obnoxiously orange hair do not a great performance make.

McDormand and Pitt, however, are as fantastic as ever.

Together, they form a hilarious, unpredictable “league of morons” and one of the film’s highlights.

The ensemble’s standout is undoubtedly Malkovich, who gives a simply uproarious performance as the excitable, acerbic alcoholic/starving writer/homicidal maniac Cox.

No question, “Burn After Reading” is, unapologetically, a screwball movie.

But there is a trajectory even to the most haywire of films.

“Burn After Reading” is madness without a method. It’s schizophrenic, disorienting and at times incomprehensible.

Moments of hilarity, while potent, are brief and sporadic, like gaps of quality in an otherwise cluttered mess.

It can’t decide if it wants to be a slapstick circus or a biting socio-political commentary, a heist caper or a helter-skelter comedy of errors.

Following up “No Country for Old Men” is no easy task.

And in fairness, it would be the critic’s own fault to expect matched quality from this, the Coens’ latest.

That said, it’s almost as if the film retreats deliberately into this ready-made, built-in excuse.

“Burn After Reading” is safe when it should be daring, gratuitous when it should be subtle and lazy cover-to-cover.

Moviegoers rightly expect more from a film of this pedigree.

As it’s shaping up, the film is getting loved-it or hated-it reviews.

This is an indifferent-to-it review – the very worst kind. “Burn After Reading” is a painfully forgettable film.

The drama lacks pathos, the violence lacks justification and much of the comedy falls flat.

Despite its loaded cast and high-caliber directing duo, “Burn After Reading” is a befuddling, untidy picture.

“Burn After Reading” opens tomorrow.