Earlier this week I saw Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers film currently in theaters.  There are plenty characters in pursuit of happiness, though it’s obvious from the start that no one is going to capture the prize.  As in many of the Coens’ comedies, characters driven by some combination of selfishness, misunderstanding, stupidity, or yearning bounce off each other in increasingly outrageous and improbable ways.

Low-level CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, played by John Malkovich, is told he will be eased into a lesser position at the State Department.  At once pompous and profane, Cox takes delight at proclaiming his superiority to the morons who surround him.  He quits his job in high umbrage and decides to take some time off and write a memoir about his work in the comically misnamed intelligence community.  Osbourne’s plan doesn’t sit well with his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), who already is thinking of leaving him in preference for her lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).   She sees a plump and vaguely reptilian divorce attorney, who gives all the right advice about trying to save the marriage but whose smile widens and eyes glint when he details the ways he can make life miserable for Mr. Cox should that become necessary.

Following the attorney’s advice, Katie makes a computer disk of financial records; the disk also happens to include background material for her husband’s book.  The disk eventually falls into the hands of two employees at a local fitness center, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who mistakenly conclude that it contains intelligence secrets.  Linda is desperate for money to bankroll a complete remake of herself via cosmetic surgery, so she enlists Chad to help her solicit a reward for the disk’s return.  Their efforts turn into attempted blackmail, and, once rebuffed, into an effort to sell the disk to Russian spys.  As things start going wrong  Linda becomes increasingly frantic, imagining that she and Chad are trapped in a deadly struggle between American and Russian agents.  There is deadly menace here, but it comes not from the spy communities but from their own misguided actions.

So, who’s pursuing happiness?  Osbourne Cox isn’t particularly interested in happiness, instead being content with misanthropy and alcohol.  Katie Cox is after a better mate, though what would make her happy is probably not intimacy or companionship but having someone she can control.  In any event,  Harry backs away at the prospect that their affair could turn into a serious commitment.  He is the hedonist here; he is looking not for a relationship to make him happy but for sex with any woman whom he can manage to bed.  One of his conquests happens to be Linda, who is earnest about finding happiness through self-improvement.  The improvement she seeks, though, is not psychological, spiritual, or even behavioral, but physical.  She’s convinced that a smaller butt and bigger breasts will win her the man of her dreams.  It seems impossible, though, that romance could ever bring anything other than momentary contentment to someone so self-absorbed.

The only character who seems the least bit happy is someone who isn’t pursuing it.  Pitt’s Chad is serenely clueless.  He’s a creature of the moment—chewing gum, sucking a water bottle, or listening to his IPod with intense and rapturous single-mindedness.  For him, bliss is living in the moment.  In contrast, when he has to make future plans his forehead creases and a pained expression settles on his face.  Like the Deltas in Brave New World, he is much better off when others do the thinking and he is left to enjoy life’s simple pleasures in peace.  In a film saturated with folly, he’s the only fool who is satisfied.