A sarcastic soufflé
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 an inexorable, implacable 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, starting with--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 (1996).
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 film adapted from it--values life and cares about its passing too much to fail to take it seriously, 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 Hollywood values 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 McCarthy's reputation, 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 ethnicity 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 alternated between a chase and endless musings on death and dying; its self-absorption seemed muted and puny compared to 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 McCarthy's action sequences; if a critical success, I submit that may be thanks to all the people snowed under by news of the brothers adapting the work of a major literary figure.
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 realist acting of the No Country cast (excepting Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, who's basically the Terminator in 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--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 work. 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. 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. 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. 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 as the only straightforward character in the picture, the gravely sane and sober lynchpin on which the whole unlikely enterprise turns.
Pitt--I've rarely if ever liked the actor. He was faintly ludicrous in Neil Jordan's Interview with a Vampire (1994), hilarious in Edward Zwick's Legends of the Fall (same year), forgettable in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel (2006), and made for 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 Bellamy's slyness, but has gotten the man's 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"), hamstrung by the same diabolical Fates (or by the same diabolical brothers, if you like). Resistance is not just futile, it's downright laughable.
First published in Businessworld, 11.21.08
Friday, November 21, 2008
Burn After Reading (Coen Brothers, 2008)
A sarcastic soufflé