November 25, 2008 – 4:20 am

Compared to No Country For Old Men, the Coens’ Burn After Reading might be a less ambitious movie but there is a bright spark to it. There’s also great ensemble playing and, as Critic After Dark Noel Vera notes, a surprise turn from Brad Pitt, of all people.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading (2008) is their first feature film after last year’s No Country For Old Men, and by most standards it’s a diminishment. Less ambitious, less grave (where No Country dealt with inevitable mortality, in Burn mortality acts more like a caffeinated jack-in-the-box), less demanding of its audiences, it seems to resemble in tone and level of cynicism the kind of dry, dark comedies the Coens have made through the years - but their works have always been comic, from the ironic noir of Blood Simple (1984) through the leisurely narrative knots of Miller’s Crossing (1990 - arguably their finest) to the small-town caricatures of Fargo.

No Country may be their least typical work, taking for its source (and tone, and essential spirit) a novel by Cormac McCarthy; there’s a mournful, elegiac feel to the book that’s entirely new to the Coens, a sense that the novel - and the film adapted from it - values life and cares about its passing too much not to take it all seriously, or more seriously than the Coens ever have. It was enough to push people’s sympathies over the edge, I suppose, to the point that the Coens have won commercial success, near-unanimous raves, and finally that collection of gold doorstops citizens of Hollywood value so highly.

And yet - for some reason I much prefer the Coens’ latest. Yes it’s less ambitious, yes it doesn’t stretch or lead them over relatively unfamiliar (at least not in obvious ways) ground, yes it gives one the impression of the Coens tossing off an entertainment - a trifle - to their fans while their next major work gestates. But comfortable Coens are, it seems, confident Coens, with the effrontery that’s their hallmark - where with No Country they seem subdued, cowed even, by Mr. McCarthy’s reputation and thematic heft, dealing with their own material they’re able to bring to Burn the spark that I thought was missing in No Country.

It isn’t as if the novel was all that much - a strange man of indeterminate race with a hideous pageboy haircut (admittedly the Coens’ own addition) wielding a captive bolt pistol isn’t exactly my idea of fearsome Death (check out Fritz Lang’s Der Mude Tod [Destiny, 1921] for a more persuasive figure). The book alternates between a chase and endless musings on death and dying; its self-absorption seems muted and puny compared to Mr. McCarthy’s later, much more superior The Road, where the writer’s traditionally lean prose is given tremendous emotional and dramatic force by the love of a doomed father for his doomed son.

If No Country was a commercial success, I submit, that may be because of the Coens’ crisp staging of Mr. McCarthy’s action sequences; if No Country was a critical success, I submit that may be thanks to all those snowed under by the fact that the brothers were adapting the work of a major (and far more sober) literary figure for a change.

Which leads us back to Burn. Hardly anything weighty in Burn, an airy concoction with a decidedly acrid taste - a sarcastic soufflé, if you will. The Coens have traded the wide spaces of the American Southwest for the gray streets and hallways of the Capitol Beltway, turned in the realistic acting of the No Country cast (except for Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, who’s basically The Terminator with an absurd bob cut [Bardem reportedly took one look at himself and said “I won’t get laid for the next two months”]) for the more energetic mugging of Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and George Clooney.

This is farce, low farce, and the Coens play it perfectly: close in to catch every twisted expression, and in long takes that allow the performers to whip their comic inertia into a lather (I’d love to see the Coens tackle Oscar Wilde, one of these days - not only do the sensibilities mesh, so does the pacing, somehow brisk and deliberate at the same time).

If there’s anything at all new to the film, it’s the gift the Coens seem to have acquired for ensemble playing. They’ve told stories full of memorable supporting characters, but always with an ostensible protagonist, or at least one character dominating the foreground; with this picture no one really stands out (not always a bad thing), everyone works - hard - to achieve an overall frenzied quality.

Mr. Malkovich (maybe the only casting choice I might quibble with) is a known quantity and frankly he’s getting a little dull (even in Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling you don’t find much variety or surprise to him), but he doesn’t detract; he pushes matters along with sufficient energy.

Mr. Clooney depends on his famous handsomeness for comic effect, and a dependable handsomeness it is - it suggests leonine wisdom and grace where there isn’t any, and you’re constantly being surprised by the absence, thanks to the abundant surface evidence. Ms. McDormand - well, she’s dependably varied, and here while the Coens do introduce her through a series of grotesque body parts (flabby upper arms, crow’s feet eyes, ballooning butt) her conniving Linda Litzke eventually becomes familiar, charming, even towards the end poignant. Richard Jenkins as Linda’s boss and secret admirer functions the only straightforward character in the picture, the gravely sane and sober lynchpin on which the whole unlikely enterprise turns.

Mr. Pitt - I’ve rarely if ever liked the actor. He was faintly ludicrous in Neil Jordan’s Interview With A Vampire (1994), epically hilarious in Edward Zwick’s Legends Of The Fall (same year), forgettable in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel (2006), and an uncharismatic Jesse James in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, released last year. He did strike comic sparks from Guy Richie’s Snatch (2000), a movie I otherwise detested, and does an okay understated turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean movies (where he’s supported by a dozen other better actors), but here he’s a wonder; can’t believe how well he plays stupid. I’d call him the film’s Ralph Bellamy - he lacks Mr. Bellamy’s slyness, but does get that apparent cluelessness down pat.

And it’s all much ado about nothing; ultimately no one gets nowhere, fast, even the holier-than-thou CIA sentinels watching pitilessly from their featureless Quantico office (they merely lose less than everyone else) - and that, I submit, is what makes Burn so unsettling. No one rises to the top, or stands out; we all strive and struggle according to our respective intellectual gifts (the film’s tagline: “Intelligence is relative”), and accompanying opportunities and circumstances, and hamstrung by the same diabolical Fates (or by the same diabolical Coens, if you like). Resistance is not just futile, it’s downright laughable.

Note: First published in Businessworld, November 21-22, 2008. You can also email Noel Vera at [email protected]

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  1. One Response to “A SARCASTIC SOUFFLE”

  2. Fine assessment of both Coen movies. But, your take on Pitt’s career could use a re-evaluation. I, too, was not overly taken with Pitt at first glance, until I saw Kalifornia early in his career. That one performance, before I knew what a pretty boy casting coup he would turn out to be, formed my thinking on everything he’s done since - even though you’re not inaccurate on some of the critique of his particular performances. I can’t imagine Kalifornia would have the same impact going backwards. If someone saw it for the first time today, one might think it “over the top,” knowing what we know now. But THEN, it was an eye opener and a damn good film performance, un-colored by what he dished up later. I would also throw kudos his way for the minor but convincing stoner he played in True Romance.

    By Sam on Nov 25, 2008

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