But while the tenor may have changed, the madcap template is very much in place. The rub: a disc containing the memoirs of recently dismissed, mid-level CIA operative Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich at his high-falutin, foul-mouthed best) floats into the hands of two gormless gym employees-turned-recreational grifters, plastic surgery-obsessed singleton Linda (Frances McDormand) and soft liberal airhead Chad (Brad Pitt, right). After an inevitably calamitous attempt at bribery (‘We’ve got your secret shit!’), the pair find themselves cack-handedly doorstepping the Russian embassy in search of a swifter pay-off. Fold into that a parallel story where George Clooney’s rubber-faced philanderer, Harry, tries to juggle semi-serious flings with Linda and Osbourne’s flamed-haired ex, Katie (Tilda Swinton).
Considering the Coens’ past form with intricately plotted farces (‘Raising Arizona’, ‘Fargo’, ‘The Big Lebowski’), this does feel effortless to the point that you might imagine they could have scribbled it on the back of a napkin between breakfast and brunch. Yet, beneath its deadpan façade, nimble direction and robust photography (care of Emmanuel Lubezki) lies a cheerily nihilistic (misanthropic even?) work which paints its characters as preening, self-obsessed, idiot savants who wear stupid clothes, habitually lie, misuse the internet for dating and wouldn’t know a conscience from a Coke bottle. Even at their lowest ebb (2004’s ‘The Ladykillers’) the brothers’ palpable affection for old movies injected some humanity into the overly sardonic proceedings; but here, even the movies are bad, as seen in their snarkily anodyne film-within-a-film, ‘Coming Up Daisy’.
The audience are, in the end, placed in the boots of JK Simmons’s flummoxed CIA chief who, having been nervously informed of the preceding antics, finds it tough to fathom how these people could have been so damn stupid. It’s possibly the Coens’ least romantic film, which makes the cynical tone a tough pill to swallow, but chances are that you’ll be too busy hooting and chuckling idiotically to notice.