by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 've figured out how Joel and Ethan Coen do it -- how they move so effortlessly from comedy to drama. It's that they don't think about tone or genre, at least not at the beginning: They just think about a character, and let him have his lead, and see where he takes them. A brilliant but heartless killer like Anton Chigurh is naturally going to take them in one direction, and so we get No Country for Old Men. And a bubble-headed knuckleknob like Chad Feldheimer is naturally going to take them in another direction, and so we get Burn After Reading, which is as gloriously zany as Country was brutally vicious.

Chad is one of those grand force-of-nature characters, like Chigurh, who cannot help but be at the center of something extraordinary -- it just so happens that where he goes when he takes the reins is into a magnificent load of nonsense. Chad stands for the glorious kind of madness that leaves you pondering our human capacity for being enormous lunkheads, rather than participating in a gloomy bloodbath that makes you question the worth of humanity. But, you know, same difference, really.

The Coens do comedy with the same level of intensity as they do drama, and in Burn that comes through in the mock-thriller atmosphere they create -- it's all dark sedans parked down the street and paranoia that pricks at your soul and cunning intrigue. Well, not so cunning, perhaps, for this is all being done by, or done to, a cadre of some of the dumbest, sweetest people you will ever meet on film. Yeah, it's about Chad the dim-bulb fitness instructor who finds a disc containing the memoirs of a CIA agent that he thinks he can turn to his financial favor. But the plot that spins from that is so wickedly convoluted that it's impossible to explain, which I wouldn't do anyway because the brainy buzz you get from Burn comes in seeing how the Coens move us through their perfectly constructed maze of a plot to get to that delicious hunk of cheese at the center of it.

The point is: Chad is only the beginning. Oh my goodness, yes -- Brad Pitt, as Chad, is marvelously goofy. He steals the movie from a whole cast of movie-stealers. But all of these characters are, though it sounds contradictory, as genuinely human as they are wonderfully cartoonish: Harry Pfarrer the U.S. marshal (George Clooney), who's going to be labeled a womanizer but for whom sex is merely one more exercise to be addicted to; Chad's coworker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), whose middle-aged loneliness has pushed her to Internet dating; their boss Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), who yearns for Linda from afar; Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), the CIA operative writing his memoirs out of boredom after he's been pushed out of the agency; and Cox's wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who ... well, she might be nothing more than a cartoon sketch of a bitch on wheels, but she's a sublimely riotous one.

There's a screenwriting maxim that one should always craft a story that's about the most important thing that will ever happen to your characters. Maybe it's just that I always fall so madly in love with the Coens' every film that it seems to me now that only their films appear to bear that maxim in mind. Linda, for one: the only thing she wants out of life is to get some plastic surgery to "repair" the perceived flaws of her body. And the Coens and McDormand play that with all the urgency and fervor of an Austen heroine, making it funny and sad at the same time. When you discover what Harry is building in his basement ... well, you'll see that this is a man desperate to share his passions: He's not selfish, he's just clueless, but pleasantly so.

I'm tempted to call this the first national-security comedy, but this isn't really about national security, and the disc with the CIA secrets is just a MacGuffin. Burn After Reading is about people ... very, very stupid people doing very, very stupid things, as performed by very, very smart people being very, very clever about it. In fact, it's probably the smartest movie ever about stupidity.


Rated R

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton

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