Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
The Coen Brothers seem like they’re deliberately subverting the praise they receive. After Fargo, they make The Big Lewbowski, a cult comedy that doesn’t approach its predecessor. Now after making No Country for Old Men, their biggest critical success, they make Burn After Reading, a funny movie about profoundly stupid people. Compared to No Country, Burn After Reading has modest goals, but I wouldn’t put it up there with the Coens’ best comedies.
Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) gets fired for drinking too much. An alcoholic prick, Osborne begins working on his memoir, as I imagine most ex-CIA analysts do. Linda (Frances McDormand) is deeply dissatisfied with her body, and seeks expensive cosmetic surgery. Through online dating, she meets Harry (George Clooney), a bodyguard who is also sleeping with Osborne’s wife (Tilda Swinton, my favorite actress). In the midst of all this, Linda’s co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) discovers a CD containing Osborne’s sensitive information. Chad, who can be generously described as a man-child, tries to blackmail Osborne so that Linda can improve herself. Stupidity ensues.
Like in many of their movies, the Coen Brothers present a complex situation that none of the characters completely grasp. As an actor who excels at letting you watch him think, it’s a delight to watch Clooney be absolutely dumbfounded. McDormand brings moments of alarming pathos to her role. She plays Linda straight – I found myself empathizing with her recklessly positive attitude. But for all its strengths, the movie isn’t completely successful. I didn’t laugh when I felt that I should – plot triumphs over comedy. That isn’t to say, however, that the movie is devoid of laughs. Brad Pitt’s performance is inspired. Clooney’s character is working on a project that provides the best sight gag in any Coen Brothers movie. And JK Simmons, a reliable character actor who plays the CIA director, hilariously dispatches plot lines with a combination of confusion and casual malevolence. Yet the movie is more entertaining than it is funny.
Not every Coen Brothers movie is a success, but they are all interesting. Burn After Reading won’t be remembered as one of their greats. It felt like Intolerable Cruelty – consistently odd, occasionally inspired. If you are willing to embrace the movie’s glorious stupidity, you’ll have a good time. Just don’t expect No Country for Old Men (or The Big Lebowski, for that matter).
Here are other smart comedies about stupid people:
Being There. Peter Sellers stars in this dark satire directed by Hal “Harold and Maude” Ashby. Sellers plays Chance, a moronic gardener with the demeanor/dress of a WASP. When Chance’s caretaker dies, he wanders into the streets and is flabbergasted by what surrounds him. Punks harass Chance, so he points the TV remote at the boys, trying to change the channel. He looks genuinely confused when nothing happens. Eventually political elites discover Chance, and regard his empty insights as profound. There’s talk of Chance becoming a presidential candidate. What makes this movie work is Sellers’ performance – he never once breaks character, and never gives Chance a chance to develop. A few scenes create some belly laughs – consider the double meaning when Chance tells Shirley MacLaine’s character that “he likes to watch.” The infamous last shot (seen above) is as subversive as any joke I’ve seen in an American movie.
A Fish Called Wanda. Kevin Kline won an academy award for his portrayal Otto, the insanely stupid weapons man in this complex heist comedy. Four buffoons steal a shitload of diamonds, and two of them try to nab all the loot in the aftermath. Soon a stuck-up lawyer, played by John Cleese, gets wrapped up in all the wanton backstabbing. Co-written by Cleese, the screenplay is rich with situational irony and one-liners. Unlike most comedies which immediately try for laughs, A Fish Called Wanda begins by observing the idiosyncrasies of its characters, and letting the comedy grow from there. I particularly like the actress who plays John Cleese’s supremely bitchy wife. The line, “Avoid the green [fish] – they’re not quite ripe yet” always brings a chuckle. I’ve seen this movie at least six times, and yet always find new jokes to appreciate (pay attention to the background music during the funerals).
State and Main. David Mamet usually makes intense dramas wrought with cons and emotional abuse, so it’s a pleasant surprise that he also made this lighthearted show business satire. A group of Hollywood types descend on a small Vermont town, using the quaint setting as a backdrop for their new movie. Naturally the townsfolk clash with their visitors. Sarah Jessica Parker and Alec Baldwin play the stars of the movie-within-the movie. They have ludicrous problems that give the production team a headache (she’s reluctant to bare her breasts on screen*, he’s into 14 year old girls). The movie works because of its stellar cast and because of the snappy dialog. Like all David Mamet movies, the screenplay has many repeated lines, and the actors’ delivery has an unusual rhythm. State and Main is the sort of comedy that’s short on belly laughs but provides plenty of chuckles. You’ll find yourself repeating your favorite lines long after the movie is over. Go you Huskies!
* One character observes, “I don’t know what her problem is. She takes off her shirt to do a voice-over. What’s her problem? The country could draw her tits from memory.”
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I fuck up the WTO’s shit.