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.


"No Country for Old Men," Charlie Wilson update
December 29, 2007, 7:39 pm
Filed under: Coen Brothers

I’m a little late to the party on “No Country for Old Men.” It’s been kicking around the multiplexes for awhile; I’ve been avoiding it as part of my larger quest to stay away from violent, depressing movies. But once I saw “Sweeney Todd,” I had to consider my boycott of all things bleak and bloody to be effectively over, so it was time to take in the Coen Brothers’ latest opus.

Some disclosures: I have not read the Cormac McCarthy novel on which this film is based, nor have I ever seen the Coens’ “Blood Simple” or “Miller’s Crossing.” So I can’t evaluate “No Country for Old Men” in terms of either its source material or of the Coens’ most closely related work.

That being said, I found “No Country for Old Men” to be nearly brilliant at times, maddening at others, and ultimately lacking in any kind of cohesive center. There’s a soullessness to the film that goes beyond the moral emptiness of its main characters, and little indication of who we’re supposed to root for in a story that is as bleak as the parched Texas landscapes on which it takes place.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting on the West Texas prairie one afternoon when he stumbles upon a murder scene, bloodied bodies scattered among abandoned pickup trucks, along with a stash of heroin. He ignores the pleas for help of the one man still alive at the scene, and takes a pistol from the hand of one of the dead men, plus a satchel containing two million dollars in cash.

Moss moves through this very matter-of-factly, with no hesitation and no indication whatsoever that he might be weighing the possible consequences of his actions. Later though, feeling remorseful about failing to help the survivor, Moss returns to the scene. But others arrive, shooting at Moss and unleashing a pit bull to to attack him. He escapes, but puts his young wife (Kelly MacDonald) on the next bus to her mother’s house in Odessa, and goes on the lam himself.

Of course, someone is coming after him: a hired gun named Anton Chigurh (Jaiver Bardem), a ruthless, soulless killing machine in a bizarre Dutch-boy haircut. Bardem is one of the scariest psychopaths I’ve seen in a long time – not so much cold, but single-minded and frighteningly efficient in pursuit of his prey. He does away with a number of sweet, hapless Texans who in their unfailing politeness and eagerness to help are unable to grasp the depths of his depravity. (Thus we get the Coens’ usual lineup of amusing character cameos, but this time they all end in bloodshed.)

Tommy Lee Jones is Sherriff Tom Bell, who tries to hunt down Chigurh and save Moss. Jones brings an eloquent sense of suffering and world-weariness to his role; there’s a sadness etched into his face which indicates he’s seen too many terrible things in his years on the force and feels the weight of it closing in on him. It’s both suggested and told to us outright (in Jones’ opening narration) that Bell has been broken by the culmination of years of dealing with ever-greater, ever less comprehensible evil. But his journey from idealism and innocence to cruel reality isn’t echoed elsewhere in the film, and doesn’t seem entirely connected to the rest of this particular story.

I keep hearing that Brolin is brilliant in his role, but I can’t see that either. I have no clue why Moss decided to take the money and run. I mean, sure, it’s two million dollars and all – but after you watch Moss get shot at by Chigurgh over and over, repeatedly wounded and repeatedly forced to flee, you’ve gotta ask “DUDE! What were you thinking?” (I’m reminded of Marge Gunderson’s bewildered rumination at the end of “Fargo”: “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? “). I had no sympathy for his character, and after a while, no patience for him either. There’s never a redemptive moment for Moss, let alone a moment in which the clue phone rings and he actually picks up! He’s let unstoppable evil into his life by taking that satchel of cash, but he sadly never seems to grasp that. Perhaps that’s as intended. But I think I can be forgiven for wanting either Brolin or the Coens to show us the wheels turning inside Moss’ head


A day after seeing “Charlie Wilson’s War,” I stumbled upon a History Channel special, “The True Story of Charlie Wilson’s War.” It’s unfortunate that it won’t be aired again soon, because it’s a great companion piece to the film. There are interviews with the real Wilson and Joanne Herring, but the damnedest thing is this: not only is the film very true to the actual events, but some events that were omitted in the film are even more dramatic that what was left in. (Wilson committed a drunken hit-and-run on the night before he was scheduled to leave for a critical fund-raising junket in Pakistan, nearly lost a re-election bid, and suffered congenitive heart failure during the years when he was working to obtain arms for the Afghans. None of that made it into the movie.)

Most amazing of all: Wilson really did watch Dan Rather’s report on Afghanistan while soaking a in a Caesar’s Palace hot tub with three strippers. I’d have sworn that scene was an invention of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, but it turns out – it’s all true!