Burn After Reading
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, and JK Simmons. Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. 96 min. Rated R.

Towelhead
Starring: Summer Bishil, Peter Macdissi, Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, Maria Bello, Lynn Collins, and Eugene Jones. Directed by Alan Ball. 124 min. Rated R.

Ethan and Joel Coen divide their time between dark murder stories and generally broad comedies. Of course, their darkest films — e.g., The Man Who Wasn’t There and Blood Simple — have undercurrents of comic irony, while “comedies” like The

Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? can get pretty dark. I would argue that their best films are Fargo and Barton Fink, the two that straddle comedy and seriositude most ambiguously.

Following their Oscar for the exceedingly grim No Country for Old Men, the brothers have gone into full-on comic mode with Burn After Reading, if one can call a film in which some of the most likable characters are brutally killed to be comic. The

intricate farce plot goes something like this: When longtime CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is fired, he vengefully starts writing a “mem-wah” (the pronunciation gives you a sense of what a pompous jerk he is). A computer disc of his manuscript is misplaced at a gym, two of whose employees — Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) — take it to be official top-secret info. They try to blackmail Cox. Meanwhile, the latter doesn’t realize that his wife (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with petty blowhard Harry (George Clooney), whose random philandering also involves Linda. Things get very complicated.

Even though Burn After Reading is often funny, it rarely achieves either the hilarity of Intolerable Cruelty or the iconic goofiness of The Big Lebowski. The performances are pitch-perfect, with Pitt, getting to play a naive dope without a single sexy cell in his body, having the most fun of the principals. As is often true in Coen films, there are a few supporting players who nearly run away with the movie: JK Simmons (Juno, Spider-man) is sublime in his few brief scenes, and Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, The Impostors) is broadly heartbreaking as Linda’s unfulfilled admirer.

Even the Coens’ lightest films are shot through with misanthropy; for every truly admirable person (Marge in Fargo), there are a dozen morons, hypocrites, and slimeballs — which may be why the filmmakers don’t feel shy about jerking the characters around like a capricious, even contemptuous, deity. Normally, this leaves a bad taste, but the Coens are fortunate that Alan Ball’s Towelhead opens the same day. Next to Ball, the Coens look like Walt Disney.

I haven’t seen more than a few minutes worth of Six Feet Under, which several respected friends have raved about (my film obligations don’t leave a lot of time for TV). Ball’s other big credit is the script for American Beauty, arguably the most bogus, overrated piece of manipulative tripe to win a Best Picture Oscar in living memory (and the field offers up lots of competition). Towelhead, his directorial debut, only confirms that Ball’s work is invested with an inflated sense of self-importance that clashes with its shallowness and utter plasticity. (This is where you go, “No, no. Tell us how you really feel.”)

Towelhead centers on a nearly affectless 13-year-old (Summer Bishil) who, after a fight with her mom (Maria Bello), moves to Houston to live with her Lebanese-American father (Peter Macdissi). He’s an even bigger jerk than his ex-wife. The seemingly friendly neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) is friendly in the most unsavory way; and pretty much everyone else is similarly a caricature of human defect (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher, as vaguely hippie-ish concerned neighbors, feel like they’ve wandered in from a different, better film). For nearly two irritating hours, Ball puts us through one ugly encounter after another, rubbing our noses in the worst of the human condition for no discernible purpose.

The Coens may jerk their pawns around, but at least it’s in the relatively unrealistic context of farce or stylized melodrama. Ball drops the poisonous little voodoo dolls he mistakes for characters into a more realistic environment, as though that will somehow render his story more “serious.” In fact, it simply reveals the shallowness of his worldview.