Thursday, September 25, 2008

Burn After Reading

At the end of the Coen Brothers' previous film, "No Country For Old Men," the cinema audience (including myself) erupted into various spurts of noise, complaint, and praise. Everyone in the theater had an opinion, and while it was a largely negative consensus, there was still a range of reactions from laughter, Oh Wows to What The Hells. The credits were like a hall of mirrors; I grunted at the end, then laughed at the audience's reaction, then rethought my thoughts on the ending, and continued laughing at the audience who had continued voicing their opinions. At the end of the Coen's latest film, "Burn After Reading," I think I finally can empathize with the audience I sat with during "No Country." The credits popped up on the screen and I felt cheated, annoyed, and frankly like the Coens don't really like me, or anyone else in the theater.

One of the Coens great strengths is to write wonderfully idiosyncratic protagonists. Jeff Bridge's Dude in "The Big Lebowski" is the consummate example of this; he is the sympathetic slacker that both visually and characteristically has become a modern film icon. My favorite is Tim Robbin's Norville Barnes, corporate scapegoat and inventer of the ... well, you'll see ... in 1994's "The Hudsucker Proxy." The list goes on and on; Gabriel Byrne's Tommy, John Turturro's Barton Fink, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh are all so much their own people and all lead talented and often huge casts of actors. All of these characters have their own distinct kind of dialogue (you would never mistake Fink for Chigurh or Barnes for Tommy), but this is just an extension of their imbedded personality, and that is what makes them so entertaining to watch.

In "Burn," the Coens seem to have entirely inverted this trend. The characters are nothing more than verbal ticks and, more importantly, there is no protagonist. Please, name me the main character. In fact, I'll make it easier: name me a person the audience gives two shits about. At first, I thought it was John Malkovich, but then Malkovich dropped out of the film for about twenty minutes while meandering through other somewhat funny characters, until finally he returns, only to leave again. The humor of his character, Osborne Cox, is entirely reliant on dropping F-Bombs and pronouncing "memoir" in the same way a culture snob would say "croissant." All verbal, no substance. All characters, no stand-outs. What are you doing, Coens?

It may sound like I didn't think the movie was funny. In fact, I've been accused of campaigning against the move with the fervor that I campaign against Sarah Palin. On the contrary; I laughed quite a bit (and Palin would probably want to ban the picture in her home state, so I'm automatically in support of it). The whole "memoir" thing actually was funny, Brad Pitt did some goofy things, and J.K. Simmons has a wry sense of joke delivery that I enjoy immensely. I just find it unfortunate that the funniest thing in the whole movie, by far, is a dildo chair. For a couple of guys who can throw jokes at lightning speed (just watch the first five minutes of "Hudsucker"), forgive me for thinking Dildo Chair Revealed is a bit lacking. When Francis Macdormand reiterated "Where's the money?!" all I wanted was to hear "Lebowski" at the end of the sentence. When Malkovich walked out of his house weilding an axe, all I wanted to see was "Fargo."

Then came the end of the film. The end I waited 90 minutes for, the end that may finally give some point to all of this. But the end explicitly tells us: there is NO point to all of this. And for this I felt cheated, with almost literally a phoned-in climax, and no one in the audience made a noise. "But the point IS the pointlessness" you might say. Bullshit. Seinfeld has had that covered for years, and he did it with more personality and humanity than this film could ever hope for. "But its a farce on the government! Look how silly our leaders are!" you might say. And again, I reply Bullshit. I can go better, more entertaining places for that to be told to me. Maybe even to a different Coen Brothers movie.

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