Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Joel and Ethan Coen's follow-up to the Academy Award-winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) is a return to the smarty pants black comedies that put them on the hipster map. And credit where it's due: The brothers' dark, all-star farce about sex, lies and surveillance is pretty damned funny.

CIA Balkan analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) has just quit his job, furious that his smug superiors were about to demote him, ostensibly because he has a drinking problem but more likely because of his foul temper and evident contempt for the rest of the human race. Osbourne's wife, ice-cold pediatrician Katie (Tilda Swinton), is furious: Osbourne's plan to start a consulting business and write his memoirs (sorry, mem-wahs) strike her as the height of deluded self-indulgence. Unbeknownst to Osbourne, Katie is having an affair with serial philanderer Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney) -- a charming horn dog who claims to have spent years bodyguarding top-level politicos without ever discharging his weapon (nudge nudge, wink wink) before taking a cushy gig at the Treasury Department -- and has engaged a cutthroat divorce lawyer. Harry is married to successful children's book writer Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel) and has no plans to divorce her, regardless of what he tells Katie or anyone else. Hardbodies health-club employee Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, Joel Coen's longtime wife) is in the throes of a midlife crisis and wants to reinvent herself via plastic surgery she can't possibly afford. Then her genially brainless co-worker, Chet Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, delivering a broadly comic turn that's oddly charming despite its aggressive lack of subtlety), gets his hands on a disc full of top-secret sh*t -- Osawld's mem-wahs -- the janitor found in the ladies' locker room. Linda sees an opportunity… an opportunity for blackmail, to be sure, but an opportunity none the less. Their inept attempts to cash in set in motion a farcical series of misunderstandings that end in mayhem, murder and massive confusion in the intelligence community.

Every Coen Brothers tic and mannerism fans of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN rejoiced they had abandoned is back in full force in BURN AFTER READING: The snarky dialogue, briskly artificial timing, absurd plot contrivances and cavalier willingness to exploit brutal suffering for laughs. And it's often funny and occasionally hilarious: Unlike many films in which the cast is clearly having a high old time, the audience isn't left out of the fun.