Thursday, April 2, 2009

"Burn"-ed Out

Joel and Ethan Coen are among my favorite active filmmakers. The brothers have a great ear for dialogue, a well-developed visual style, and a deep knowledge of film history and genre conventions. However, if not for No Country for Old Men, I might be tempted to say they've lost their touch. Consider the films prior to that Oscar juggernaut:

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) is a mess, its screenplay showing the marks left by the many hands through which it passed. Clooney and Zeta-Jones try to out-screwball the classic screwball comedies, but the whole thing feels hollow. The Ladykillers (2004) rarely rises above slapstick farce, which is acceptable if that's all you're attempting to do. However, the film's overplayed morality and trite, well-worn treatment of its African American characters are enough to sink it despite Tom Hanks's delightfully hammy performance.

Then, the Coens took a few years off before returning in 2007 with No Country, a film fully deserving of all of the praise it has received. Which makes it all the more painful that their follow up to that film, Burn After Reading is a disappointing return to the sub-par form they'd previously demonstrated.

Reading is the story of recently-fired CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), whose wife (Tilda Swinton) is cheating on him with a high-libidoed Treasury agent (George Clooney), who is also dating a frumpy gym employee (Frances McDormand), who dreams of plastic surgery. When her hyperkinetic coworker (Brad Pitt) discovers a data CD containing Cox's memoirs, which they mistake for top-secret information, they begin a scheme to blackmail Cox into rewarding them with a "Good Samaritan tax" for keeping his data safe. This sets off a farcical and, eventually, bloody chain of events wherein the ties between the characters are revealed and exploded.

If Reading looks different than other Coen Brothers films, that is perhaps because the Coens longtime collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, was unavailable for the shooting of this film. His replacement, Emmanuel Lubezki, brings a looser style. Although he uses perspective and redivision of the frame to capture the film's themes of spying and paranoia, his work here lacks some of Deakins' easy naturalism and adaptability. However, the film's visuals are not an issue; the biggest problem lies with its characters and screenplay.

Like Wes Anderson, the Coens are sometimes accused of being pure stylists with little or no substance underneath. I generally disagree, and think that when they are on form, they are among cinema's best at characterization and the subtle creation of meaning. Even in their "lesser" works, most characters are well-defined, engaging, and somewhat sympathetic.

Unfortunately, the principal characters in Reading are almost entirely repulsive and stupid. Aside from very brief moments, none of them are at all sympathetic or relatable, and there is no single "lead" character to serve as a point of entry for the audience. The film seems, at times, to evoke sympathy for McDormand's Linda Litzke and push her into the lead role, but her shallow goals and dim wit push the spotlight off with no ready replacement. We're left with a cast of supporting players who appear to exist solely to be the butt of this film's cruel humor. That might work in a film with sharper satire, but whatever points the Coens attempted to make have gone blunt in the finished product.

Reading features its share of traditionally-quirky Coen Brothers' dialog, but the lines come unmoored from their humorous base when spoken by characters who are so distant, silly, and unattractive. It's hard to laugh AT characters without at least one character to laugh WITH. The performances here are fine, although far from revolutionary. Malkovich is the usual manic Malkovich, Swinton is as cold and seductive as ever, and Clooney is playing a slightly goofier, bearded George Clooney. But it's hard to watch Pitt, whose somewhat amusing performance would be far better if he weren't so self-consciously "acting" as to practically be winking at the audience whenever he's on screen.

Overall, the film is flat, cynical, and even somewhat misanthropic. The message seems to be that people are stupid and shallow, a bromide hardly justifying the 90 minute movie made to deliver it. If the Coens' intention was, as the final scene suggests, to characterize the lack of intelligence in the post-9/11, post-Iraq war intelligence community, there are smarter and more effective ways of getting the point across, and far better targets than the low-hanging fruit they choose to pick on here.

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