Monday, September 15, 2008

Burn After Reading

From time to time, I like to consult long-time colleague and mentor Ace McGee for his insights on a film. His storied career began in 1969 when, at the age of 8, he entered the world of critical letters with his razor-sharp excoriation of the dumbed-down fumblings of his elementary school's Thanksgiving Day Play. The piece, Turkey Time Is the Real Turkey, is a must-read for any fan of the Elementary School Theater, and his ribald, profane take-down of the play is even more astonishing when you learn that McGee had a small role in the production. The same year, he wrote his classic book, Moonshot, Woodstock, and Nixon: An Eight Year Old's Letters from Vietnam, still considered to be the seminal work on the experience of the juveniles who were drafted into the service during that turbulent era in American History. After seeing Burn After Reading, the latest Coen Brothers film, I sent him a text that read "wot did u thnk?" and only three minutes later, he texted back with the following response, reprinted here as he sums it up better than I ever could.

"Where do these guys get off? Do they think we're stupid or something? They keep saying the same things over and over again, with absolutely nothing new to their nonsense. It's like they think we forget every time the new Coen Brothers movie comes out that we've heard it all before, but they just go right back to the well and give us the same-old, same-old stuff. These imbecilic critics see the movie and then they start tossing out the word 'misanthropic' like it's supposed to be a bad thing, or like it means anything. 'Oh,' they cry out, just about to faint like a Southern Belle, 'these guys don't have any sympathy for the stupid characters that populate their narratives! They look down upon these simps and judge them harshly! Oh no!' Forget that it's not true, and that, while the Coens often bring an ironic, detached perspective to their narratives, they're still able to present clear, relatable characters that are nonetheless absurd cartoons of humanity. Forget that. What these people, these critics are talking about is themselves. They are the ones who can't face the dumb, obsessed idiocy of themselves, and so, while they identify with the stupidity, they are also repelled by it. They mistake the consequences of the characters' actions for judgement by the filmmakers. And then they feel judged since they've empathized with the dum-dums in the movie, and they boo-hoo-hoo all the way through their published columns about the poor saps that these mean old directors went and gave a spankin' to, and their hearts grow three sizes because they fought for the little guy characters of a movie, and meanwhile I'm crackin' it up because I know I'm stupid and that life's not fair and that's what makes life funny sometimes.

"So forget them. This is a hilarious trifle of a Coen Bros film, and it's only a trifle because it's missing that visual splendor. Remember in even their first movie, Blood Simple how they made little ol' Texas look just as alien as the Sea of Tranquility (where the astronauts landed)? Not a lot of that here. There are one or two moments where they find that groove of epic Otherness that they bring to all of their movies (even The Ladykillers--a movie that suffered from too much sympathy for their characters), but it's not nearly as visually rich in design. I almost didn't care, though, because they replaced that rich mise-en-scene with something different and wonderful: great faces. You almost want this to be like The Passion of Joan of Arc where the entire movie's done with closeups. Everyone's face is hilarious, especially Brad Pitt's. The dude's great at vacuity, no doubt about it, but he's not just stupid, he's got a childlike earnestness that is quite endearing. It's a spiritual cousin to his movie-stealing stoner part in True Romance. But then, the whole cast is great, and their looks of perplexity, or confusion are priceless... if you just watch the movie for the faces you'll probably enjoy this movie 50% more than if you're watching it for, like, the plot (which is a fun parody of espionage thriller conventions). Yeah, they all overdo the dumbness just a tad at times, but they're all playing at the same levels of cartoony, and no one's 'playing' dumb. Even Clooney who, after two movies playing dumb with the Coens, has finally gotten it right. Everyone's eyes are stupid, I guess, is what I mean. You look in their eyes and just see stupid, not an actor who knows better winking at you and saying, 'Shucks, aren't I a dweeblehead!'

"And maybe it's just a trifle of a Shaggy Dog story, or something, man, but I don't know because I keep thinking about it. I couldn't help but think about Modern American Problems while watching it. Gimme a few days and I'll whip up the right words for it, but you know, we just saw the movie, and I'm waiting for you to get out of the bathroom so I can get a ride home from you. Not enough time! But there's something there, particularly in the way Frances McDormand wants to get plastic surgery to "remake" herself, so that she'll be more attractive to men. It's like, we all think we can just buy love that way. You know what I mean? And we're all pretty stupid and uninformed about geopolitical matters, so maybe we'd take a classified document to the Russians, even though they're not so much our enemies anymore. And the CIA is a 3rd person omniscient force in the world over who can and will control our lives if they need to. I thought the story was somewhat meaningful, anyway, in a subtle way, not a way that screams out "I AM ABOUT MODERN AMERICAN PROBLEMS."--Some guy just stepped on my foot. What's taking you so long?

"I loved it, I gotta say. I loved every microsecond of it. Remember when Lebowski came out and you and I loved it, but everyone was kind-of rolling their eyes and saying, 'They did that after Fargo?' but now it's lauded as this classic and people love it? And we got into that fight because those two critics from the Post and the Times were mocking us as pot-heads for liking it? And I had to go to the hospital because I'm a hemophiliac and that dude from the Post cut me? And now they've eaten their words? I don't know if this is going to age as well as Lebowski, but I think people are going to look back on this one more fondly than they're treating it now. It's a bleak movie, sure, but it's very, very funny and I'm still crackin' it up about that ending. It might be seen as a jab at the audience by the dweebleheadeds, but I think it's a grand joke the Coens are making on themselves for spinning such an elaborate yarn about nothing. And anyway J.K. Simmons and David Rasche are so funny, they'd make it a worthwhile movie even if you hated everything else in the picture. You know, the most important thing about the movie, though, is

"I just broke off my thumbnail on my phone. You gotta get out here and get me to the hospital, man, I'm gonna bleed to death."

Ace McGee is currently in stable condition at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center.


movie buff said...

Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... in any case, it's about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements

Movie Gravity said...

So what is allstar cast and allstar directors, personally I think is failure. Besides some enjoyable moments, and you'll occasionally laugh I don't find the smell of a comedy.