The Coen Bros.’ followup to Best Picture Winner No Country for Old Men sees them right back in their element, a bleak semi-comic crime drama set in a specific American milieu. Burn After Reading has less bleakness and more semi-comedy, but the formula is recognizable from Blood Simple through Fargo through, well, their whole filmography.

Our specific American milieu is not 1980’s Texas but present-day Washington D.C., where a group of spooks and government functionaries cross paths and swords with a group of bumbling gym employees. The story begins when a career CIA Analyst, Oswald Cox (John Malkovich) is forced into retirement. Cox has two different volume levels: cucumber cool and ballistic rage. Though so cultured he says ‘mem-wahs’ for memoirs, he spends most of the movie dropping F bombs.

That’s because his ‘mem-wahs’ and other personal information fall into the hands of Hardbodies gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand). Mistaking the information for “secret CIA shit,” Chad and Linda seek to extort first Oswald, then the CIA itself.

Continue reading about Burn After Reading (spoilers)…Of course, neither Chad & Linda nor the CIA can get a complete picture of the situation because neither understands the other, nor the exact relationship of Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney) to what’s going on. (I believe Clooney’s character is sleeping with every woman in the film.)

I suppose you could say this farcical view of the intelligence community is the Coen Bros. comment on the lead-up to the Iraq War. But probably not. I rather think they were just being funny, which they can pretty well do in their sleep. On the level of a dark comedy, Burn After Reading is mildly satisfying – especially in the performances of Pitt as lovable dope Chad and McDormand as the genially vain Litzke.

My favorite element might be the parodic and catchy score by frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell. Though a beautifully-shot (Emanuel Lubezki) and precisely edited (the Coens under a pseudonym) movie, Burn After Reading lacks the same calibrated control in No Country that seemed to signal the Coens were arriving at a higher level of filmmaking. To be sure, I was no fan of the left turn No Country took in its plot. Burn After Reading has some similar anti-climactic final scenes, and though they are more satisfying than No Country‘s final scenes, the movie as a whole is decidedly less satisfying. The characters and situations are just not as interesting — they feel, in summation, only half worked out.

Did Harry ever have to explain the bloodstains? What of witnesses to the shooting of Oswald? What did Oswald’s father or Sandy Pfarrer’s lover have to do with anything? Was Oswald fired for his drinking problem or for being a Princetonite in the CIA’s Yalie culture? Shouldn’t we feel bad that the two nicest characters in the film meet grisly ends?

I’ll take The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, or Miller’s Crossing in terms of story over the last four Coen Bros. films. The brothers Coen are capable of much greater humor and more satisfying character journeys, even if No Country was a masterclass in storytelling through film technique.