The Coens' Burn After Reading (2008) by any standard is a letdown from their previous film, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (2007)--it's more shallow, more cynical, more a regression than a step forward.
And yet for some reason I prefer it to the latter. Not a big fan of No Country (as I think I made clear); I understand it as the Coens' attempt to stretch, to reach out for a more mainstream audience, but on their own terms, and to the extent that they did reach people it's successful (successful enough to win them a gold doorstop or two)--at the expense, I submit, of aforementioned terms.
Now that they've shrunk back into their shell, so to speak, I'd say it's freed them to be really subversive (think Keaton who, after trying out a smile in one of his films, found the gesture so deafeningly off-key he never tried it again). On the surface these are the shenanigans of a handful of not very bright people, with the true CIA agents watching from their little cubbyhole office like cherubim shaking their heads at the folly of mortals (love that shot of McDormand looking up at the helicopter--she in effect's been granted a brief vision of the real order of things).
Beneath that bright surface you sense troubling currents--the pathos of creatures of limited ability and knowledge, struggling and striking out in the dark, succeeding only in drawing the net tighter about them. The whisper of sympathy one finds in an outright Coen comedy seems sublter, more persuasive, and less hypocritical, I thin, than the full wind of professed humanity that blows when they're channeling another writer (in this case a novel that's far from being McCarthy's best, I think). In other words, I prefer them when they underachieve than when they overreach, at least in this case, anyway.
And is it too heretical to say I enjoyed Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) more? Stiller's far as I'm concerned comedic--scratch that; would love to parody people who use that word, but can't muster the energy to bother-- comic masterpiece (the set bar isn't very high) is possibly the best movie about a movie movie since, oh, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980) (I'd mention Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998), but that film's so clearly above mere comedy--or for that matter either movie--that I couldn't muster the effrontery). The picture peaks early, with the image of Stiller sucking the drippings off of Steve Coogan's severed neck, but manages to go on to be arguably the definitive satire on actorly ego, obsession and sense of inferiority, something Stiller apparently knows from bitter personal experience. Nothing visually interesting--Stiller I assume is from the school of not caring how a comedy looks, more's the pity--but I do enjoy some of the more disparate references he manages to insert, a low-status artform he's some kind of default master of (to whit, Bridge on the River Kwai and Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Downey is dependably good; Cruise surprisingly so (what is it with him and Pitt (who was memorable in Burn?). Are the overrated stars of the '90s trying to pull their respective careers out of the Doghouse of the Forgotten by actually, y'now, acting?).