Published at: Sept. 7, 2008, 4:42 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Let’s just get that out of the way. Liked it a whoooole lot while I was watching it. Started really liking it as I drove home talking to Mr. Beaks about it. And I think I sort of love it now that it’s had a while to sink in.
I love the funny Coen Bros movies for the most part, which is why I am so saddened by my distaste for INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS. They both feel like epic stumbles to me, and I’ve tried watching them again. I like THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, but I haven’t felt compelled to rewatch it. I was one of the very first people to profess my undying love for THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and that film’s ever-expanding cult following pleases me endlessly. I wish some of that love got funneled over to THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, which deserves far better treatment than it got when it was released...
If the music cue at 2:35 in that clip doesn't make you laugh, I don't know what to tell you, man.
For me, my love affair with the Coens started with RAISING ARIZONA. I read a review of the film, and although the review was largely negative, the reviewer convinced me to hunt the movie down when he quoted what he claimed was an example of the “awful” dialogue: “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” The music of that line, even just written out on a page, made me interested in these guys and their worldview, and I ended up going to see RAISING ARIZONA. It was me, my girlfriend, and about three other people in that theater, and I was the only one laughing. Not just laughing, either, but gasping for air as I laughed, amazed by what I was seeing.
I have a feeling this is going to be another of those moments where some people are laughing, and other people are staring at them in the theatre wondering what, exactly, they are laughing at. BURN AFTER READING is wildly funny, but it’s also very sly and subversive as a piece of filmmaking, and it’s not an obvious comedy in any way. From the score to the cinematography to the overall mood, the film feels like something entirely different, and that’s part of why it makes me laugh so hard.
Carter Burwell’s always been one of the best collaborators for the Coens, a guy whose own warped sensibility is totally in synch with theirs. Try to imagine RAISING ARIZONA without his score. It’s impossible. Burwell’s music is the engine that drives that incredible pre-title sequence, as much as the language of it or Barry Sonnenfeld’s exceptional cartoon cinematography. That yodeling was so bizarre, such a wild choice, that it practically redefined for me how far you could push a score in service of a film. I’d never heard anything that sounded like that for a whole movie. And then to hear the quiet, meditative beauty of his work on MILLER’S CROSSING a few years later... it just shows you how rich Burwell’s imagination is. One of the reasons I think he isn’t quite as frequently name-checked by film nerds as guys like Elfman or Williams is because his work doesn’t have just one sound. He seems to be able to do almost anything, each time figuring out what the character of that film is, his work and his style bending to suit the picture instead of him trying to make everything sound the same way. Even when the Coens used no score at all for last year’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, with just one minimalist track at the end, that was a choice that Burwell was part of, and he got the same credit on the film he always does. I love what he did for BURN AFTER READING. It sounds like he got hired to write this for some giant-budget action-drama about the CIA, and Emmanuel Lubezki seems totally in on the joke as well. He shoots this in the same jittery hyperclarity he brought to ALI or Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. This isn’t shot like a “comedy” at all. Normally audiences take their cue from that obnoxious sunshiney overbright color in studio comedies. That’s what tells them that what they’re watching is “funny,” and it’s surprising just how much of an impact it has on audience expectation. They may not ever notice the cinematography or the score overtly... many audiences don’t. But it has a huge subliminal impact on what they think they’re watching versus what the film actually delivers, and that dissonance, part of the joke, may make some people very uncomfortable. The story is profoundly silly, a roundelay of morons bouncing off of each other in little fits and starts of stupidity. In some ways, there is no real story to the film. You keep waiting for everything to add up, and when it doesn’t, that also might frustrate audiences who expect certain sorts of narrative beats to occur every single time. The Coens have a habit of frustrating those expectations, though, and BURN AFTER READING is no exception.
The film starts with Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a low-level CIA analyst, being called into his boss’s office to be demoted. He reacts badly, quitting instead of letting himself get moved, and when he tells his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), she takes it badly, too. She’s been having an affair, anyway, with the amiable doofus Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), and she’s ready to leave Osborne. Harry’s a bit of a cad, though, constantly cycling through encounters with women he meets on the Internet. Things would probably be bad enough with just these people in the mix, but then Osborne makes a few serious errors. First, he starts writing a book, a fiction based loosely on his experiences in the Agency and things he’s heard over the years. Then he leaves it on his computer, where Katie downloads it while trying to get his financial records. She gives it to her lawyer, who gives it to his secretary, who puts it on a disc that she takes with her to the gym where she works out. Hardbodies. It’s a cookie cutter chain of gyms, like a 24 Hour Fitness or a Bally’s, and when that disc gets lost, then discovered by the Hardbodies staff, it sets off a chain of events that is both breathtaking in its stupidity and hilarious because of how seriously these ridiculous people take all of this.
I think the Coens have always loved the characters they create. For a while, they got a reputation as being chilly, emotionless, clever without really meaning it. I think that’s unfair. ARIZONA is a film positively brimming over with love for its characters, and I think MILLER’S CROSSING is rich with eccentric humanity, as is LEBOWSKI. There are a few of their films where things tipped a bit to the smug “look at the dummies” side of things, but with this film, they once again have created a group of people absolutely ripe with faults and foibles who the Coens love because of their flaws, not in spite of them. Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) gradually emerges as the real center of the film. She’s one of the gym employees, constantly surrounded by people in pursuit of better bodies all day long, and she’s become determined that plastic surgery is the only way she’s going to move forward in life. Unfortunately, she can’t afford the surgeries she wants, and so she’s slowly drowning in self-pity. Like Harry, she spends her time on Internet dating sites, but she’s not just looking for sex; she’s looking for something lasting, some sort of real love.
Brad Pitt is... well, come on. You know by now whether you admire the kind of madness Pitt brings to his most interesting work. 12 MONKEYS. FIGHT CLUB. SE7EN. And, yes, this film. Chad Feldheimer is the new Greatest Coen Bros Character Ever. He’s not the main character in the movie. He has a few big sequences, but for the most part, he’s a supporting player. But in grand Coen Bros tradition, he kills every single moment he is onscreen. Just kills. He’s a personal trainer, constantly moving, constantly dancing to his own iPod soundtrack, helping out a friend simply because that’s what you do and it’s sort of exciting. He doesn’t really think he’s blackmailing anyone when he tries to get money from Cox. He’s just expecting a reward for doing the right thing. Like any decent person should expect. And when Cox won’t pay, things get ugly. And stupid. People make very, very bad decisions.
I think Clooney’s work is fascinating. I like his O BROTHER performance. It’s crazy, but it works. I’m less enchanted by the bland romantic comedy lead work in CRUELTY, a film that is what it aims to skewer, toothless. The concept has no follow-through. MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR THE DAY does a better job of capturing the pulse of a genuine screwball comedy than CRUELTY does, and it’s a shame. It’s rare when Clooney doesn’t have a chemical spark with someone, but I think he was mismatched with Zeta-Jones. Honestly, this is my favorite Clooney performance since OUT OF SIGHT and THREE KINGS back to back. He’s a bundle of quirks in his early scenes, these big scripted conversational tics. He’s obsessed with people’s floors and exercising after sex. He’s paranoid. He’s phony. And as the film unfolds, the quirks become cumulatively funnier. Without ruining things, I’ll just say that I love the way the first half of the film plays like the third act of GOODFELLAS, with Clooney on edge, sure he’s being shadowed, waiting for the bullet he knows is coming. And then things change. And things happen. And the payoff for him is the best comic material in the film, I think. It’s another twist on the gentleman spy work he’s been doing now in films like CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and SYRIANA. He’s able to make the sleaziest guy... and Harry’s certainly sleazy... somehow charming.
McDormand is, as always, best served by the Coens. Nobody writes more interesting roles for her, or offer her such deliciously twisted characters.
She’s the MIRROR MIRROR version of Margie Gunderson. Margie simply was a positive person, secure in her faith that good somehow sorts itself out in the universe. The events in FARGO test that belief, but she’s so decent that you have to believe that after that, she was still that same good person. Linda’s not a particularly good person. She’s very positive, but she’s also blind. She wants a man to love her, but she has no idea how much her boss Ted (the great great great Richard Jenkins) wants her, just as she is. He tells her. No hesitation. But she never registers it, just shrugs him off. She wants surgery, and she can’t understand why that’s nobody else’s problem. She seems to expect it. After all, she’s the one reinventing herself. She’s got faith that the world will give her what she deserves, and she doesn’t seem to care what she has to do to make it happen. She makes some truly horrific decisions in the film, and Chad’s the one who really takes the brunt of it, so determined to help her and so excited to be part of the “spy shit.”
I also really loved the stuff between David Rasche and J.K. Simmons as two C.I.A. officers, junior and senior, sort of serving as a Greek chorus to the various bits of insane bad behavior. These two could do a weekly show, just giving reports and reacting to them, and I’d watch it every single week. They’re that funny together.
I don’t think it’s the tidiest wrap-up, but that’s also sort of the point of this one, just as it was with LEBOWSKI. It’s more the collision of people like primal forces that interests the Coens, and it always has been. BURN AFTER READING may divide viewers at first, but I think it’s got a shot at being part of the pantheon for the Coens. I’ve been thinking about it constantly since seeing it. It’s the sort of Coen Bros. film I want to talk about with my friends who are also Coen Bros. fans, because I think there are about five or six moments that are immediate “Oh my god, did you see that?” moments, and two that are so remarkable you wish you could take the DVD home with you. It’s a whole different flavor than what is normally called “comedy” these days, and that alone makes it worth sampling. I suspect this one will be a grower, not a shower, and if it doesn’t really connect at the box-office, it’s no doubt because the guys once again zigged when anyone else would have zagged.
And really... if you love their work... would you have it any other way?