Brad Pitt in Burn After ReadingBURN AFTER READING

Brad Pitt is so adorably dim-witted in the Coen brothers' espionage comedy Burn After Reading, and John Malkovich is so hilariously profane (and singularly weird), that it's a little heartbreaking to admit just how disappointing the actors' debut outing with the Coens actually is. From 1984's Blood Simple to last year's No Country for Old Men, the filmography of Joel and Ethan has been chockablock with enjoyably eccentric throwaway characters. Until now, though, I'd never seen a Coen brothers movie that was nothing but a series of enjoyably eccentric throwaway characters; Pitt, Malkovich, and the film's other hard-working performers provide a decent enough time, yet I still left Burn Without Reading feeling a little bewildered and annoyed, and counting the months - hopefully not too many - until the siblings' next endeavor.

The film's strenuously labyrinthine plot, which involves blackmail, adultery, and ceaseless paranoia in Washington, D.C., is almost too torturous to explain, which is fine, because the Coens themselves don't seem much interested in their plot. It's difficult, however, to determine just what they are interested in here. We're given an avalanche of potentially amusing satirical figures (George Clooney's happily adulterous federal marshal, Frances McDormand's augmentation-obsessed gym employee, Tilda Swinton's two-timing D.C. socialite), but it isn't clear what they're meant to be satirizing - certainly something more than the rampant idiocy in our nation's capitol? - and their encounters and missed connections are so random as to be completely arbitrary. All throughout the film, you keep waiting for the "a-ha!" moment when the numerous, seemingly unconnected storylines and characters finally coalesce into some satisfying whole, and it never happens. (They come close in the final scene, but by then it's too late to care.)

Beyond the writers/directors' always-admirable technical virtuosity, there's very little about the film that holds your attention - even the dialogue is mostly flat - and so you wind up incredibly grateful for the rare, nutty grace notes: Malkovich's stinging enunciation when hurling obscenities; Pitt's happy jackass trying to look tough by narrowing his eyes into slits; J.K. Simmons' C.I.A. director throwing up his hands at the whole nonsensical mess (much like the audience). There are scattered giggles throughout the Coens' latest, but not nearly enough of them; put simply, Burn After Reading isn't as bad as Intolerable Cruelty, and it isn't as good as ... well ... all the others.


Meg Ryan and Annette Bening in The WomenTHE WOMEN

She's a beautiful, talented actress, and she always comes across as such a kind person in interviews, so what in heaven's name did Annette Bening do to deserve the atrocious treatment she gets in The Women? True, her material is no more vapid than anyone's in writer/director Diane English's ungainly update of Clare Boothe Luce's marvelously mean-spirited stage comedy and George Cukor's beloved 1939 film adaptation. But playing the sardonic best friend to Meg Ryan's recently cheated-on spouse, the actress, looking pale, wan, and wrinkled, has been photographed almost insultingly poorly. We're told that Bening's Sylvie Fowler and Ryan's Mary Haines have been friends since college, and you end up wondering: Was Sylvie Mary's professor? (Not that The Women gives any indication of it, but Bening is Ryan's elder by less than three years.)

Adding insult to (cinematic) injury, Bening is one of the few performers here who seem even to be trying to add some wit to the proceedings, which are like Sex & the City minus the tartness, cleverness, and occasional honesty. There are good, bitchy readings by Candice Bergen and Eva Mendes (who is also treated awfully, but at least looks good), but Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debi Mazar, Cloris Leachman, and Bette Midler end up resorting to sitcom-honed obviousness, and Meg Ryan is just as perky, sincere, and predictable as you'd expect (and, for some of us, secretly dread). Barring a late-film guest, The Women is a movie wholly devoid of Y chromosomes, which is both novel and long overdue. But English's revamp is so formulaic and tiresome that you end up wishing it had bypassed the cineplex and proceeded directly to television, where it would likely sound - and no doubt look - much more at home.


Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Righteous KillRIGHTEOUS KILL

A little Web research would probably reveal just how much money Robert De Niro and Al Pacino received for their participation in the foolish, hackneyed serial-killer drama Righteous Kill, but is there any figure that wouldn't be depressing as hell? (The film's interminable 100 minutes feel nearly as long as the miserable 88 Minutes that Righteous Kill director Jon Avnet - and Pacino - foisted on us earlier this year.) De Niro barks and makes that face that suggests a man grimacing his way through a painful bowel movement, and Pacino chomps his chewing gum and looks vaguely amused at the ludicrousness of it all, and a younger generation of moviegoers is left, yet again, wondering why the braying stars were once considered gods of the acting profession. Some of us among the older generations of moviegoers are beginning to wonder, too.

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