I'd dearly love to spring out with the ol' contrarianism and declare Burn After Reading to be a better film than No Country for Old Men, but I really don't believe I can defend that argument. So instead, let me just stick to the easy praise: Burn After Reading is easily the funniest film by Joel and Ethan Coen since The Big Lebowski ten years ago, and generally speaking feels more like their old stuff than anything else they've done in that decade. Tonally and narratively, Burn plays essentially like a hybrid of Raising Arizona and Fargo: ambitious losers get in way over their heads and intelligence levels when they try to execute a simple crime. Death, destruction and farce ensue.

For those of us who hear those titles and can't help but sigh ecstatically, Burn After Reading couldn't have come at a better time: after the one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers cast, for the first time, a veil of doubt over the brothers' previously impeccable comic sensibility, and No Country only really proved that they could make a flat-out masterpiece in tandem with making the soberest film of their career, a balls-out blast of silliness like this one - and such very morbid silliness it is, too - is tremendously relieving. This, not No Country, is the Coen mentality I fell in love with, with all due respect to that very great motion picture. Here is the recognition that human idiocy and fragility are too absurd to engender anything but laughter and mockery, a trait that needlessly moralistic critics like to sneeringly call "misanthropy", as though identifying (correctly) that the brothers Coen have a cynical view of the world is the same thing as proving that their art sucks; this despite the seeming fact that Burn After Reading is as sensitive and piercing a vision of fin de siècle aimlessness in America as the 21st century has yet produced.

The cast of Burn is comprised almost entirely of very weary people: Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is an alcoholic CIA analyst whose desperation is fueled by his increasing nostalgia for the good old days of the Cold War, married to the chilly Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), who longs so badly for anything like passion that she's seen fit to strike up a long-term love affair with the monstrously self-obsessed and paranoid Treasury Department agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). A few notches down the Washington social ladder, we find the men and woman of Hardbodies Gym: owner Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), deep into middle age and pining after his employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who hides her crippling fears about singlehood and her own natural physical decline in gigantic fake smiles and a harping insistence on positive thinking. Just about the only person in the whole movie, in fact, who isn't depressed or hiding depression about something is the incredibly clueless Hardbodies trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), whose tremendous immaturity and optimism set him up for the hardest fucking-over of just about anybody in the movie. These two chunks of people are brought together when a file containing some of Osborne's CIA memoirs ends up in the women's locker room at Hardbodies, and Chad and Linda see a quick and easy chance at blackmail, as well as a couple of other blendings that have nothing to do with the caper at hand, and thereon hangs the film's farce.

I know that you could find a précis for the film virtually anywhere, but I included it here because I think packed within the seemingly minor details of the story is much of what makes Burn After Reading a great work. At its heart, the film is about the terror of irrelevance and aging; not just for the characters, who all have their own private fears about what middle age brings along with it, but for the country and society they live in, with its unseemly preoccupation with youth and youth culture (it echoes No Country more than a little bit in this respect). Not for nothing is it set in the corridors and streets of the nation's capital - helpfully portrayed by the Coens' home base of New York City. Burn is a story of America loosing its purpose and struggling to remain relevant in a world that views most of its actions as meaningless or actively destructive.

Bear with me, because I'm about to make an apparently unrelated comment: the Coens have often in their career made films with a particular focus on the subversion of generic conventions; not parodies exactly, but studies in the meaning of "detective movie" when the detective is a stoner, of "crime movie" when the criminals are incompetent and the cops are naïve, "gangster picture" when all the characters and incidents are presented as archetypes and objects instead of realities. Burn is their take on the spy thriller genre when the stakes are precisely nil, a point brought up by an unnamed CIA chief played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons in a two-scene cameo. It's explicitly used in the film as an excuse for broad comedy, but it just as readily points out that the whole idea of sp00ky intrigue is a bit fusty in 2008, no matter how relevant it might have been once upon a time.

That this is all played for loopy comedy is as clear a sign as anything could be that the Coens were involved. And quite a swell comedy it is, too; not as many laughs-per-minute as in Lebowski, certainly, nor even in The Hudsucker Proxy, but thanks to the supremely talented cast working at the peak of their abilities, it never wants for gut-busting dry comedy ("gut-busting dry comedy", now that I think of it, is another hallmark of the Coen style). So consistent is everyone in the cast (outside of Swinton, given the least gag-ridden role), that I could never pick a favorite: Malkovich gets a lot of mileage from snarling the word "fuck" at a rate that almost competes with the Dude himself, Clooney give a performance full of absolutely hilarious facial expressions (his best for the brothers yet), Pitt just looks so damned goofy with his awful dye job and tight clothes that the joy with which he plays an utter idiot is almost easy to miss. That said, I think I was most impressed with the two performers who actually have some bitterness to edge out the comedy: McDormand is better than she's been in anything since Fargo, acting so desperately happy that we can instantly see the sorrow underneath, and Jenkins is a marvel as the film's only sympathetic figure, who just wants to say "I love you" to an unusually oblivious crush. The way he delivers two lines near the end: "She's not a moron" and "No I'm not" are heartbreaking. But in a funny way.

As to the film's craftsmanship...look, it's a Coen movie, so it's going to be really well-made, but compared to No Country it's just not quite so flawless. The editing, now that's the exception: the brothers, working under the pseudonym "Roderick Jaynes", get better and better as they get older, and I honestly thought that the amazingly tight cutting in No Country, where hardly one cut was arbitrary or wasted, had to represent the end of their evolution. And I guess it probably did, along that mode of development. But I find myself considering anyway that Burn After Reading is their most perfectly-edited film yet, using cuts with simply perfect comic timing. Burn might well be the tightest film they've ever made, propelling forward at a clip that makes the 95 minute runtime seem a third that long, which isn't inherently praiseworthy - the shagginess in Lebowski is a significant part of that film's appeal - but it works damn well for what amounts to a cartoon farce.

Elsewhere, it's a very good film without being impeccable. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is hard to get around, for a start; for the first time since 1990, the Coens aren't working with the great Roger Deakins, perhaps because he has nothing else to prove with them, after producing the finest-shot American color film of the last 40 years last autumn. Certainly, Lubezki doesn't have it in him to turn in anything less than great work, but mere greatness is actually enough to make this one of the least visually-distinguished films the Coens have directed. There are few if any moments of visual transcendence in Burn After Reading, and this I count as a disappointment. Much the same can be said of the film's design (which is typically precise without having the full depth of character of their best work) and the score by Carter Burwell (bombastic and looming but quite generic; I can't decide if my knowledge that this was very much the intended goal is enough to excuse it).

These are not significant criticisms of a film that proves the old adage, or at least it deserves to be old: a reasonably decent Coen brothers film is leagues better than almost anything else that gets released. Maybe you don't like the Coens; maybe you find their laid-back, cynical worldview too post-modern and alienating to handle; and if this is the case, you have my profoundest condolences.