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Burn After Reading

There are a few writer/directors whose new films, which we seem to get on a pleasingly regular basis, are always a must-see for me.  I’m thinking about talents like Woody Allen, David Mamet, and the Coen Brothers.  With artists like that, I know that a new film will always be interesting.  Sometimes I might love what I see, sometimes I might be disappointed, sometimes I might be indifferent —  but I always know that what I’m watching will be a unique, personal vision.

I’ve been a bit of a late-comer to the films of the Coen Brothers.  Their first film I saw was Fargo, soon after it came out in 1996, but I didn’t quite “get it” back then.  I think it wasn’t until a few years later when I first saw The Hudsucker Proxy on tape in college that I really started to take notice of these filmmakers.  (I just re-watched Hudsucker last week, and it remains one of my absolute favorite films.  More on this below.)

It always seems for me that the Coen Brothers films that everyone likes, I don’t — and the ones that get passed over are the ones I really dig.  Everyone went crazy about O Brother Where Art Thou?, but I found it to be a dull, rather obvious take on the storylines of The Odyssey.  Conversely, I think I’m one of the few people on Earth who really dug the screwball comedy and rat-tat-tat dialogue of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty.  And as for No Country for Old Men, which got such acclaim last year… I was thoroughly engrossed in the film for most of its run-time, but ultimately I felt it just didn’t earn the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene.  What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) that so affected Sheriff Bell (Tommy lee Jones)?  For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply?  The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Tommy Lee Jones, while we never get to see Llewelyn’s tragic end, indicates that the film was really the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s.  But I, as a viewer, was invested in Llewelyn!  And having the end of his story cut off by the finale (we never see Llewelyn’s final confrontation with Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh) really pulled me out of my enjoyment of the film.

Which brings me to Burn After Reading, the newest film written and directed by the Coen Brothers.  Disgruntled CIA employee Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) decides to write a memoir, but a disc containing his manuscript winds up in the hands of two rather clue-less gym employees:  Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt).  Not surprisingly, things go badly from there.

The film is marvelous — I was tickled from the first scene straight through to the last.  As the misadventure piles up, we spend some time with an array of bizarre and interesting characters.  All three actors listed above are wonderful, and they’re joined by Tilda Swinton as Cox’s wife Katie, who is having an affair with Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney, in the sort of delightfully tic-filled performance he seems to consistently give in Coen Brothers films).  

One of the things I most enjoyed about the film (and, indeed, about most Coen Brothers films), is that it can’t easily be labeled.  There are a number of truly funny moments — but also some edge-of-your seat suspense and a few moments of quite horrifying violence.  This is definitely the Coens working in “quirky” mode (in contrast to a film like No Country for Old Men), but that doesn’t mean that the story and the characters don’t have dramatic heft.  Quite the contrary, I found myself getting very involved with the wacky band of loons we follow through this film, and the unfortunate ends that quite a few of them meet left me saddened indeed.  

But what sticks with me about the film is the comedy.  Linda and Chad trying to sell Cox’s memoirs to the Russians, or their hapless attempt to blackmail Cox over the phone.  Harry’s invention.  The car chase.  And I must mention David Rasche and the great J.K. Simons (Spider-Man, Juno) as CIA agents trying to make some sort of sense out of the whole crazy story.

This is definitely a film worth checking out.

Oh!  And I mentioned above that I’d recently re-watched The Hudsucker Proxy.  If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.  Broke, niave, idealistic Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) finds himself the head of the enormous Hudsucker Industries.  He’s been set up to fail, but one great invention is all Norville needs to turn things around.  It sort-of sounds like the set-up for an Adam Sandler movie (a moron is picked to run a business empire!), but its actually a sweet, loopy farce.  Robbins is great as the endearing Barnes, and Jennifer Jason Leigh gives the performance of her career as the fast-talking no-nonsense reporter gal Amy Archer.  And Paul Newman is compellingly duplicitous as the gravelly-voiced Sidney J. Mussburger, who, as the acting head of the Hudsucker board, is the man who tapped Barnes to head the company.  Newman is absolutely magnetic — when he’s on screen he is a stunningly powerful presence.  I re-watched this film only a few days before he passed away last week, and I was really glad to have had the reminder of his incredible abilities.  There other familiar faces to be found, as well:  Charles Durning (check out imdb to see his looong list of credits) plays company founder Waring Hudsucker, John Mahoney (Martin Crane on Frasier) plays the newspaper chief, and the amazing Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead, and cameos in all three Spider-Man movies) plays Amy’s reporter-partner Smitty.  Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun — and I know I do, every time I watch this.  Give it a try.

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