Doodad Kind of Town

Catching Up: "Burn After Reading" and "The Women"
September 28, 2008, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Coen Brothers, George Clooney

The last couple of weeks have been crazy-busy around here; only this week was I able to make it to a theatre and start catching up on recent releases. Miraculously, I managed to read not one single review of the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” before seeing it yesterday. (In fact, I haven’t read one yet.)

Most of the Coen’s finest past films take place in a world of conventional moral order, where there are both consequences for bad behavior and hope for redemption. Recall the final dream sequence in “Raising Arizona” where H. I. McDonough envisions a future in which “Ed and I, we can be good, too.” Or the comeuppance of the racist politician who literally gets run out of town on a rail in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Or Marge Gunderson’s rueful coda to the bloody venality of “Fargo”: “And for what? A little bit of money. Don’t you know there’s more to life than a little bit of money?”

All through “No Country for Old Men,” I kept wishing for a Marge Gunderson character to show up and bring the voice of moral clarity into the ever more senseless and violent actions of the main characters. But no such voice of reason was heard. “No Country” was firmly set in a post-modern, nihilistic world where evil and self-interest were the only driving factors. “Burn After Reading,” the Coen’s absurdist, comic follow-up to “No Country” is of the same mind as its predecessor, even if its rhythms and tone are brisker and (at first glance, anyway) sunnier. It’s instructive that, in the film’s final moments, a character asks “What have we learned from all this?” and can’t think of a single thing. There isn’t really a point to “Burn After Reading” – it’s hilarious, violent, silly and shocking by turns, and very well-acted by a talented cast – but in the end, it doesn’t amount to a lot.

Watching “No Country,” I was stunned and incredulous when Josh Brolin helped himself to satchel full of money from a dead man’s hands at what was obviously the site of a drug deal gone wrong. (“How could he be that stupid? He has to know someone is going to come looking for that! He’ll never be able to stop looking over his shoulder!” Such is the thought process of someone like myself who could never take that money without thinking through the moral and practical ramifications.) In “Burn After Reading,” I frankly had the same reaction when two health club employees find a disc containing classified intelligence information. They don’t give so much as a moment’s consideration to doing the right thing (returning to the disc to its owner) without calculating how to make money off the transaction, whether in the form of a reward or a ransom. Why do they do it? Lonely, fortyish Linda Litske (Frances McDormand) needs money for a series of elective plastic surgeries she hopes will make her more attractive, while the cheerfully, air-headed Chad (Brad Pitt) just seems to think it’s cool to play spy games.

The disc belongs to one Osborne Clark (John Malkovich), a recently fired CIA operative with a drinking problem and an icy spouse (Tilda Swinton) who’s cheating on him with an ex-hit man (George Clooney). Clooney’s married to a children’s book author (Elizabeth Marvel), but finds time not only for Swinton, but to meet women through an Internet dating site as well; it’s here he hooks up with McDormand’s Linda. Linda isn’t looking for love so much as good time, to the dismay of her health club’s manager (Richard Jenkins) who awkwardly tries to profess his feelings for her.

Most of these characters are unlikable on paper, and while I can’t say I was exactly rooting for any of them, neither was I ever disgusted by any of them either – even as their actions got stranger and less defensible as the film went on. McDormand and Pitt, in particular, emerge as oddly sympathetic, if foolish. And the Coens do a neat job of keeping many intersecting story lines straight and moving briskly. Their usual tendency towards gross caricature is notably toned down here as well, striking their trademark absurdist tone without ever becoming cartoony.

It’s hard for me to reveal, however, just how pointless the whole thing becomes without resorting to major spoilers. Let’s just say there are some shocking plot twists and events you won’t see coming; they land like a punch to the gut, but they aren’t lingered over. And things don’t end well for many of those characters, although at least one gets off scot-free and in considerably better financial shape than when the story began. Like the two CIA officers in the final scene, I was left unable to make sense of what I had seen, but somehow feeling it was it all worth my time. “Burn After Reading” isn’t my favorite Coen Brothers film by a long shot, but I’ll give them some kind of credit – they created a twisted, amoral kind of a world in which I would never want to live, and yet kept me properly entertained for the entire 97 minutes I spent there. But I don’t think I’d ever want to revisit it.

As for “The Women,” perhaps the less said, the better. I didn’t come in with high hopes – as far back as January, I was already proclaiming my outrage that this film was even being made. After seeing it, I’m still feeling outraged, and I expect that Clare Boothe Luce, author of the original play, has been spinning in her grave ever since this was released.

Right off the bat, we know we’re in disaster territory when Annette Bening says of another woman, “There’s a name for women like her, but it’s rarely used outside of a kennel.” That line comes straight from the original 1939 film – and it was both witty and true 70 years ago- but such prim coyness doesn’t make a lick of a sense in a time where you can see women wearing T-shirts with “BITCH” spelled out in glittery capital letters. Or, for that matter, in a film where the lead character boasts to her housekeeper of her sexual prowess: “I can suck the nails out of a board, and that’s the truth!”)

That misbegotten”bitch” line is only the tip of a mighty big iceberg. Writer/director Diane English (who created TV’s marvelous “Murphy Brown” – and from whom I frankly expected better) has turned Luce’s sharply witty bitchfest into a big, soggy dramedy of sisterhood, female empowerment, “being there for each other,” and other Oprah-esque trappings that would have made Luce and her flock of acid-tongued heroines gag. Sadly, everything I predicted in my original post turned out to be true (including an obvious product placement for Dove’s anti-aging skincare line!) At one point in the proceedings, Meg Ryan blurts out “What is this? A 1930s movie?” Oh, if only it were.

12 Comments so far
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Pat, you have been incorporated into the Holy Grail master list, a roll call of all the movies included and all the bloggers who participated. You can check it out here: liked your take on the Coen Brothers and the recent turn they’ve taken but I didn’t read the whole review because I still haven’t seen it. Can’t say I’ve retained as pure a pre-viewing approach as you did, but nonetheless I don’t want to spoil TOO much. As for The Women, no intention of seeing it but I do have the 30s version on my DVR waiting to be seen.

Comment by MovieMan0283

Interesting that we both got our reviews of Burn After Reading at the same time, Pat. I like your take a great deal, and we share a considerable amount of thoughts. I too kept hoping Marge would appear in No Country to give her speech to Moss, or someone.I’m kind of worn out from my last comment at my own blog in response to your comment, though–and I have to rush off. Great read, however, I enjoyed it immensely.The original The Women is wonderful, and very long for a comedy, especially one at that time (134 minutes, I believe). I’ll never see this remake.

Comment by Alexander Coleman

“It’s hard for me to reveal, however, just how pointless the whole thing becomes without resorting to major spoilers.”Of course its very pointlessness is the point.A fine piece on “Burn,” though I’d quibble about the “conventional moral order” … I think their movies take place in anything but a conventionally moral world. Hi’s dream sequence in “Raising Arizona” is from a delusional ex-con who thought it was a good idea to kidnap a baby … hardly a credible bearer of hope of any kind. The Coens clearly don’t think much of that hope because it’s put in the loser Hi’s mouth.Fargo’s Marge, while hardly delusional, is ineffective in doing anything about the rampant lawlessness, and I think the Coens’ answer to her question would be “no, there’s not any more to life than a little bit of money.”While the nihilism in their films have increased — perhaps they don’t feel the need to soften it anymore, don’t feel the need to pander to the public quite as much — I think they’ve always been at heart that way.Again, a fine piece.

Comment by Rick Olson

MovieMan – Thanks for the Holy Grail invitation – however, I’ve already been tagged and done my post. See it here: I’ll be over to see your list shortly.Alexander – I checked out your response to my comment over at your blog. No wonder you were worn out after writing it! It’s almost a whole second review. Good insights there, and wonderfully written.Rick – Thanks for the kind words. I do agree with you that the Coens have always been nihilists to some degree – certainly there have been a fair number of criminal-minded dopes in nearly all their films. But I stand by my observations about “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo.” I’ve seen the former many times, and I’ve never had any sense that H. I.’s final dream sequence was intended as tongue-in-cheek (and it’s actually Ed who drives the baby-napping scheme, with H. I. sort of railroaded, however willingly, into complying with her. Remember his return to the car after his first failed attempt and Ed’s hissy fit – “Get back up there and get me a baby!”)As for “Fargo,” it’s true, there is an awful lot of carnage before Marge nabs the last remaining criminal. (And don’t you think it’s funny that after all the horrible murders he’s committed without even blinking, that he runs in terror at the sight of Marge? ) For me, it’s that final image of Marge, snuggling sweetly beside her hubby, patting her pregnant belly and saying “two more months…” Is that not an image of hope? Compare that to our final look at Tommy Lee Jones’ weary, haunted police chief in “No Country for Old Men.” To me, those two films are worlds apart in what their finales portend for the remaining characters.

Comment by Pat

The conversation in last scene in “Fargo” revolves around her husband’s getting the one-cent duck stamp … we cut from the dead-eyed Peter Stormare to the absolutely trivial talk about the duck stamp.The question is, what are the Coens saying with that juxtaposition? Are they saying that next to the problem of this monstrous evil, the concerns of this comrfortable couple are trivial? Or are they saying that as long as there are folks like the Gundersons, there’s hope?I’m not sure which.

Comment by Rick Olson

The conversation about the duck stamp never felt trivial to me; after all, designing those stamps is a part of Norm Gunderson’s livelihood. Just because Norm’s existence is far removed from the monstrous evils of the world doesn’t make his life trivial.There is monstruous evil in the world, no doubt. But there are also quiet, pleasant moments like the one between the Gundersons. It’s entirely possible that I’m projecting my own, fairly optimistic worldview onto “Fargo,” but it’s hard for me to see the juxtaposition of these scenes as anything more significant than that.

Comment by Pat

I was left unable to make sense of what I had seen, but somehow feeling it was it all worth my time.Nice write up, Pat.I was much more enthusiastic about this film than you were, but we share that same feeling that when the film was over: I knew I had a lot of loose ends but I still knew I loved it.But you’ve made me think of something else. I’m wondering now how many sympathetic characters the Coens have created outside of Raising Arizona. Not that it bothers me so much, I don’t think they intend to create characters that people identify with, it just seems that Raising Arizona stands out me as something special in that regard.

Comment by Fox

I’m reading the comments now and agree with Rick on the pointlessness of the film. That’s why the loose ends felt fine, to me. And the way they end it is on such a perfect note .

Comment by Fox

Fox -Reading over my review, I think I actually did like “Burn After Reading” more than I may have let on here. My observation that it is pointless is not meant so much as a criticism as just an observation.Note to MovieMan- Sorry I read your comment too quickly the first time – Now I know what you were referring to. Thanks for compiling that list – that was a lot of work!

Comment by Pat

Great reviews, Pat. It’s really too bad that The Women was as bad as expected. After all was said and done, what was the point of this movie. Sounds like a complete disaster in every respect.Fargo was on IFC last night. Every time I’ve thought about it today I’ve gotten chills from remember the sound of bone grinding.

Comment by Daniel G.

Daniel – It’s interesting – During much of the time I was watching “The Women,” I was thinking about all that lively discussion over at your blog regarding Meg Ryan. She’s actually pretty good in this film, but she deserved much better material. And according to recent articles I’ve read, she took some years off to get away from Hollywood and try to ditch the “America’s Sweeheart” label that she was never comfortable with. I respect her for that.

Comment by Pat

I respect her for that, too, but it just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen for her. All of those strange roles after You’ve Got Mail ended up badly, and now this – kind of an in between type role – failed as well. Is she going to be typecast forever in people’s minds? Too bad.

Comment by Daniel Getahun

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