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That superior feeling

The Coen brothers' espionage comedy is an exercise in smugness

<strong>Burn After Reading (15)</st

Releasing two new films in the space of a year might seem like an act of generosity from the Coen brothers, but the proof is in the pudding. If their Oscar-laden thriller No Country for Old Men was the main course, an overcooked dish purged of any nutritional value, their espionage comedy Burn After Reading, is dessert - light, fanciful and forgotten the moment it's slipped down. It might have come off as a pleasing divertissement, if not for its misguided aspirations to be Charade or North by Northwest, or the striking absence of any character that you wouldn't be happy to see burned after viewing.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a snooty, bow-tied CIA analyst who quits the agency in response to a humiliating demotion, and takes revenge by dashing off a candid autobiography. His unsympathetic wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is getting her kicks with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal who proudly tells anyone who'll listen that he hasn't discharged his weapon in 20 years. Smart-alec auteurs the Coens may be, but they deserve a warm hand for respecting the humble double entendre. So let me be the first to give them one.

Somehow, the computer disk containing Osbourne's memoirs ends up at the local Hardbodies gym (long story, don't ask) where a dopey trainer named Chad (Brad Pitt) connives with his colleague Linda (Frances McDormand) to blackmail Osbourne in exchange for the disk's return. Chad and Linda get giddy on the whiff of intrigue, and start talking like mid-period John le Carré ("The fish has bitten"). But Linda knows that such opportunities for financial advancement don't come along every day. "You slip on the ice outside a fancy restaurant, or something like this happens," she reflects, betraying a lifetime's exposure to the TV commercials of personal injury law firms.

Not surprisingly, Osbourne will have no truck with their tinpot scheme, so Chad and Linda take the disk to bemused Russian embassy officials, little realising that the Cold War is so over. This excursion into matters of national security intersects with Osbourne and Katie's marital travails (long story, don't ask) until the domestic battleground has become inseparable from the political one. Divorce lawyers start behaving like CIA operatives, while the actual agency bosses loll around their offices trying to figure out what's happening.

As is customary with the Coens' films, no one gets to see the full picture except the audience. This is infuriating rather than flattering, given that even the neediest among us will quickly tire of being congratulated on how smart and omniscient we are. But this is essentially the function of most of the Coens' pictures. Small wonder they've engendered such a loyal and devoted following, when their work is specially designed to make audiences feel superior.

A film that features the spectacle of George Clooney physically attacking a jauntily bobbing dildo can't fail to be superficially amusing, but Burn After Reading falls between many stools. It's not gripping as a thriller, nor is it as eccentric as the straight-up spy stories it tries to pastiche. In The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro's film about the origins of the CIA, there was a comic sizzle to the minutiae of spying: messages hidden in hats, death warrants ratified by the tying of a shoelace. The Coens' script can't compete with that. And its complacent, off-the-peg cynicism amounts to nothing more than showing how everyone either overstates their own importance or underestimates the risks posed to them. We've already had the caper comedy Get Smart. Now the Coens have made their version - Get Smug.

The picture's reliance on celebrity performers sending themselves up would provide some pleasure if most of the cast here were not suffering from self-parody fatigue. George Clooney as a smooth-talking twit? Tilda Swinton as an ice queen? I think we may have been here before. John Malkovich has already enjoyed the postmodernist luxury of playing himself as an incredulously intelligent prig across an entire film (Being John Malkovich). And no actor who flogs snaps of his own newborn babies to People and Hello!, as Brad Pitt has done, can make himself appear any more ridiculous, even when playing a character who is one adopted Fijian orphan short of a Hollywood household.

Pick of the week

Gomorrah (15)
dir: Matteo Garrone
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Alexandra (PG)
dir: Aleksandr Sokurov
A woman joins her grandson at his army base in Chechnya.

I've Loved You So Long (12A)
dir: Philippe Claudel
So-so drama, improved by the excellent Kristin Scott Thomas.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama