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Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading' worth seeing

Burn After Reading (R)

3 out of four stars

For their follow-up to the death, despair and brutality that was 2007's multiple Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men," filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen deliver more of the same with "Burn After Reading." But this time instead of a slogging, two-hour drama, it's a quick-paced and - for the Coens - breezy, 90-minute comedy.

Something of companion piece to "Fargo" by way of "The Big Lebowski," "Burn" features a lot of clueless, self-involved characters tied together by a piece of lost computer software nowhere near as important or potentially damaging as some of the characters seem to think. Hitchcock would call it a "McGuffin." It's the innocuous centerpiece in what is essentially an extended episode of "Seinfeld" with a different cast and a little blood.

At the center of the maelstrom is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an alcoholic, short-tempered CIA agent who, rather than accept a demotion, resigns in a huff. His shrill wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is none too happy about his snap decision and consults with an attorney about a possible divorce. The news of the divorce is perceived as a mixed blessing by Katie's lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a serial philanderer who would rather date a married woman than a fresh divorcee.

Information about Cox mistakenly falls into the hands of Chad (Brad Pitt), a bubblehead gym instructor who, in tandem with skittish co-worker Linda (Frances McDormand), devise an ill-advised and even more poorly executed blackmail scheme. The attention-challenged Chad does this because it gives him something to do. The self-loathing Linda is in because she needs money for plastic surgery.

Nowhere is it written that a movie must have a plot or even make sense to be entertaining. Mainstream Hollywood does it all the time. "Burn" does have a plot, albeit largely implausible and farcical. As part-time satirists and proven, crack storytellers, we can give the Coens a lot of artistic leeway to make their point and they eventually do. Kind of.

They didn't make a spy movie here; they made an anti-spy movie that targets the often absurd conventions of the genre itself. "Raising Arizona" was their anti-heist film and the much underappreciated "Hudsucker Proxy" was an anti-big business flick. It's not what or why they and the actors behave but how. It's all atmosphere and attitude.

Look closely and you'll see Clooney and Swinton riffing on their respective "Michael Clayton" characters while Malkovich serves up a hearty serving of his "Being John Malkovich" incredulousness. McDormand is the separated-at-birth evil twin sister of her Marge character from "Fargo" and Pitt is ... completely unhinged.

Take Pitt's stoner from "True Romance," his con man from "Thelma and Louise" and that calculating piece of trailer trash from "Kalifornia," pump him up with steroids and stupid pills and you'll get Chad. It's not the sort of performance Oscar pays attention to but it's priceless and a

total scream.

You've got to tip your hat to the Coens. After finally hitting it out of the park with "No Country" and staking their rightful claim as major Hollywood players, they pull a 180 and do what they do best: something nobody expected. (Focus Features)