I've read that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote "Burn After Reading" at the same time they were adapting Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men," which means they literally went back and forth between the sublime and the ridiculous.
Maybe "No Country" was just so horribly depressing they needed something crazy-dumb to keep their sanity.
But the two movies do have something in common: People get killed for absolutely no reason, and all you can do is shrug.
If there's a consistent theme in the Coens' body of work, it's that humans act out of such narrow self-interest they become (as the title of the brothers' debut feature spells out) "blood-simple." No one but the audience sees the whole twisted picture.
Oh, wait, they do have one protagonist who sees it all: Billy Bob Thornton's Ed the barber in "The Man Who Wasn't There." But he's the exception that proves the rule. As that title tells you, he's totally impotent.
In "No Country for Old Men," the Coens found a vehicle for giving their nihilistic vision moral weight. But that was grim, while "Burn After Reading" is gleeful.
For one thing, it's a parody. I bet the Coens were as bewildered as the rest of us by the labyrinth of conspiracies in the 2005 Mideast espionage thriller "Syriana," because in "Burn After Reading" they take its star, George Clooney, and plop him down in a conspiracy movie burlesque, with CIA spies and break-ins and dark sedans on peoples' tails - all of it layered into a uniquely Coensian fruitcake.
The conspirators are idiots: Clooney as a sex-addict federal marshal; John Malkovich as a petulant ex-CIA analyst; and Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as fitness-club workers turned inept blackmailers.
Their motives are childishly self-centered. Nothing is at stake. And once again, no one but us knows what on earth is going on.
It's basically a one-joke movie. But it looks as if it was fun to make. Clooney clearly relishes playing a twitchy guy with one-tenth the charisma of, say, George Clooney; and Pitt has a ball as a sweet, muscled-up moron.
If I sound ungrateful, it's because "Burn After Reading" is the first Coens' movie where the brothers seem on autopilot, juggling their genre clichés like birthday party clowns.
Oh, well. Fruitcake, anyone?