By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Sep 13, 2008 at 5:15 AM

The Coen brothers assembled Hollywood's A-list for their latest, "Burn After Reading," writing leads specifically for Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins.

But don't expect the Oscar-nod performances usually associated with these names. "Burn" is a black comedy about, for all intents and purposes, an ill-fated collision of otherwise unassociated idiots and while the cast does demonstrate the downfalls of their flaws with brilliant and hilarious exaggeration, you can't help but cringe, continuously, at their quirky caricatures.

The film is a fun ride, it's just slower-paced than usual for the Coens. Nevertheless, it's spotted with their signature shock value. While enthusiasts will find familiarity in their dark sense of humor and swift, brutal murder scenes, the project as a whole is unlike anything they've previously directly, feeling specifically furthest from their recent blockbuster "No Country For Old Men."

"Burn" opens with a cinematic outburst by Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), a CIA analyst who's just been demoted because of his "drinking problem." To cope, Cox begins scribing his memoirs of his life with the CIA. Meanwhile, his adulterous wife (Tilda Swinton) is secretly seeking divorce and, at her lawyer's suggestion, copies all his personal financial files off his computer, including his CIA memoir notes.

The disk, of course, gets lost in the shuffle and ends up on the locker room floor at Hardbodies, a D.C. fitness gym. When energetic airhead employee Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) gets his hands on it, he recruits co-worker Linda Litzke (McDormand), who is desperate for cosmetic surgery, to blackmail Cox for the CD.

The only thing is, they have no idea what they're doing, who they are dealing with, nor what they're actually blackmailing for. Add to the mix the paranoid sex addict Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), who is sleeping with Mrs. Cox, Linda and a myriad of other random women, and the results are ridcuoulsy funny, though a pretty far stretch from any and all realms of reality. Still, it works to indulge the Coen's playful side with goofy madness that has no significant meaning.

Some might speculate the directors choice to take on something a little lighter after the heavily masterminded "No Country For Old Men," though when asked about their espionage escape, Joel Coen is quoted as saying they made it simply "because we hadn't done one before."

Fair enough.

And calling "Burn" a spy-film is somewhat misleading, though not entirely. The only actual spying exists between amatures and, well, absolutely nothing is at stake, save for a myriad of affairs and Clooney's incredibly creepy sex contraption.

"Burn After Reading" is show showing at the Oriental Theatre.


Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”