Pressed Against the Looking Glass: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading arrived in theaters this month with tremendous skepticism. Could Joel and Ethan Coen deliver another film to match the success of their 2007 Best Picture adaptation, No Country for Old Men? One review immediately suggested that the writing and directing team made their first mistake by reverting back to their “default” genre: comedy.

The Coen brothers didn’t fail audiences with reversion to a comfortable genre. They’re trademark fashioning of humorously idiosyncratic worlds have often proved successful. Were critics going to suggest that, because of the strength of No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers should basically make the same movie again? That is… until of course, getting backlash from critics that they’re being redundant?

Burn After Reading was actually written during the time that the Coen brothers were penning the script to No Country for Old Men. This is their first original screen play since their 1990 drama, Miller’s Crossing.

More specifically, the Coen brothers return to write and direct a black comedy. And it’s always been a suitable genre, considering their choice of subjects – the persistent theme of Karma’s watchful eye. Although, comedies or not, it is common in most all of their films. Burn After Reading is like a funny take on Stanley Kubrick’s classic noir, The Killing. There is a dramatic shortage of redeeming characters on screen and their fate is pretty clear.

Set in Washington, DC (some of the movie was filmed in New York, and most in Brooklyn Heights, although there are several apparent scenes shot around the Georgetown University neighborhood), the film opens with the demotion of a high-strung, aging CIA Agent (John Malkovich, for whom the part was initially written for) who struggles to resist the fact that basically, in both professional and personal life, he is now irrelevant. His wife (played with elusive emotion by Tilda Swinton), impatient with her husband’s transition to shiftless layabout, weighs divorce. Her lawyer suggests that, while the two should try to reconcile, a picture of his future financial prospects should be a relevant factor in the ultimate decision. Crass as it may sound, marriage seems like a mere necessity for security, considering she’s having an affair with their friend’s husband (George Clooney) who himself is a hobbyist of womanizing.

The bone to pick about the movie is really execution. The initial unraveling of the tale begins with what feels like disconnected vignettes that, for a little too long, fail to make sense in their connection to an overall narrative that centers around these vile, upper class narcissists.

Elsewhere, a dim-witted, self-conscious fitness gym employee (played by Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand) who is being consulted by a doctor about various nip-and-tuck procedures to hide some of her aging body. It is, she claims, necessary to her job and her ticket out of the Single Life. Denied by her insurance company coverage for cosmetic surgery, her silver lining comes along when her dufus Hardbodies coworker (Brad Pitt, perhaps in his loosest form for a change) thinks a CD left behind at the gym contains valuable top secret information. And after a little digging, they find its owner and so, the overall narrative is clear as the two gym employees concoct a disastrous blackmail scheme. With such a serious beginning to the film, this pair of idiotic, scheming Hardbodies coworkers are just the kind of odd-ball comic relief the audience needs. Their kind of idiocy and assumptions, fueled by unrelenting personal desire, feeds comedies like these (see Guy Ritchies gangster follies, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch).

But of course, the Coen Brothers, even in comedy, never offer pure cartoon humor. There is violence and there are body counts. And this is no different, and even more so this time around. These handful of characters are eventually confined to a narrower playground, and once they are, their interaction becomes a concentration of self-destruction that barely poses much lasting impact on the rest of the world when all is said and done, which makes things in the end seem even more alienated because, the self-involvement lasts beyond just these characters that seek our attention. The more disturbing feeling, however, springs from a sense that the nihilism is far from fiction.

Burn After Reading is a sharp look at stupidity. Despite some initial poor reviews, Coen brother fans shouldn’t be too disappointed with the results. It is probably not likely to gain the cult following of their earlier comedies like Raising Arizona, O! Brother Where Art Thou? or The Big Lebowski, but it’s probably also not likely to fall into complete obscurity like Intolerable Cruelty.

Closing this review with a nugget of trivia: the contraption that Clooney’s character builds in his basement was inspired by both an invention of a key grip and something out of the Museum of Sex in New York City.


Strange New World – Wristcutters: A Love Story

“Miracles only happen when they don’t matter.”

The hook of Wristcutters: A Love Story, adapted from Etgar Keret’s short story, “Kneller’s Happy Campers” is most certainly its premise. A contribution to the surrealistic road trip genre, it centers on an entirely different afterlife. The place where people exist after they “off themselves.” Our main character, somewhat, is Zia (Patrick Fugit). He was once a happy man, until somehow the relationship with his beautiful blond girlfriend, Desiree ended. And that’s when Zia decides to kill himself.

Welcome to this strange kind of post-suicidal universe, it looks to have been shot along the desert-lined highways out West, it looks as though these are perfectly regular locations, but given the coloring (often bleached or grayed) and appearance of the surroundings, there is something hopelessly depressing. Allowed closer inspection, it is clearly a depleted version of the world they’d once known. (Says the lead character, Zia: “I thought about suicide again, but I’m afraid I’ll just wind up someplace worse than this.”) Buildings are mostly junked abandons. People (who’s method of suicide is sometimes apparent) can’t even smile. The female companion on this roadtrip, Mikal is on a mission to find the “leaders” and explain that her arrival was an accident: “Are you joking? Do you guys like it here? Who the hell likes being stuck in a place where you can’t even smile? It’s hot as balls, everybody’s an asshole. I just wanna go home. ” There’s elements of the former world as well, such as the enforcement of vandalism laws. Or having to get a job and pay rent. It’s also kind of futuristic (in that post-apocalyptic sense) and this universe even has it’s charms and magic, so it’s not completely undesirable. People are reminded of suicide here, their own and others, but do they ever regret it? The characters simple seem so matter-of-fact about it’s occurrence.

When Zia runs into a familiar face (don’t it just seem like everyone is committing suicide after a while… time to revive Big Fun!), he learns that Desiree, distraught over her boyfriend’s death, killed herself too, and that she is somewhere to be found in his world now. He solicits the companionship of his friend, Eugene (Shea Whigham, a Florida doing a good job playing a Russian), a guy who’s whole immediately family wound up there with him, and Eugene, who has the car, agrees to embark “Eastish” in search of this girl. He is somewhat his wisdom, somewhat his source of confusion, especially with Eugene’s philosophies tied to his nature of trying to always be the Man’s man.

As the road trip genre obligates, they’re journey intersects with a lot of strange characters and one more for the trip: Mikhal (Shannyn Sossamon), the one who claims she got there by accident and is hitchhiking her way around in search of the leaders to explain that it was a mistake, something that might convince the reader they’re about to head into something more like liabilities as a result of typos (Brazil). Croatian writer and director Goran Dukic, who’s film credits mostly include shorts, did a lot of adding to Keret’s short story. Like the black hole in the car, for example, to emphasize the surrealism of the after-life, though larger ambitions were restricted by the shooting budget and an inflexible 30-day shooting schedule at 17 locations. And while Dukic was working with several well known actors, including Will Arnett who seems like he’d be totally out of his expected element if this weren’t black comedy, Patrick Fugit, John Hawkes, and Tom Waits, it’s funny to hear what inspired his cast selection: he really thought they were good in movies that pretty much everyone has seen. And Tom Waits? “I’d been listening to him since I was a little kid.” Which might hint that they worked for incredibly little money to appear in this movie, which seems inevitable for a movie with such intense low-budget quirk.

Thankfully, despite that low-budget quirk, it’s spared the typical “quirky indie” paint with childish block lettering and bold colors and excessive irony. Instead, Wristcutters is fairly steady black comedy (fairly stead because there’s this weird experiment involving Will Arnett’s guru-type character) that brings it closer to surreal road trip movies (a mishmash of activity and points of focus) and it even has a happy ending. Add to that a soundtrack dominated by rock singers who had committed suicide at one time, and the modern gypsy-punk of Golgol Bordello (the lead singer of which, Eugene Hutz, is modeled upon for the character, Eugene), the movie rarely seeks convention and for that reason, can take it’s viewers just about anyone it wants in this strange new world.

White Line Fever: Motorama

Behold, Motorama! The bizarre black comedy you may have never heard of! Or maybe watched by accident, thinking you just found an undiscovered 80’s teen romance co-starring teenage Drew Barrymore! Oh boy, were you wrong!

See the kid standing in that picture standing on the Mustang? That’s 10 year-old Gus, and he basically represents the all-American kid’s fantasy: he’s a supervised minor with a car. Now you’re probably thinking that’s a guaranteed recipe for comedy hijinks later downplayed by a saccharine, but important moral lesson at the end. Maybe, but that wouldn’t really be all that bizarre, now would it?

Actually, Gus isn’t so much unsupervised as he is newly emancipated from his abusive parents. But rather than going through the cumbersome legal channels to sever ties, a stolen Mustang and some cinderblocks to reach the pedals provide the quickest and surest path to independence. Screenwriter Joseph Minion, the man behind the Scorsese comedy (yes, Martin Scorsese directed comedy) After Hours and the creepy 1989 movie Vampire’s Kiss, penned this rather unique interpretation of “coming-of-age” fiction. Gus is a kid in childhood limbo, in a sense. He’s far more intelligent and a hardened cynic for his age, but he seems like he’s searching for the traditional notion of “childhood.”

At first, escaping his parents seemed to be just about Gus’s only goal. His subsequent journey on winding, generic highways seem like an aimless one and Gus is now a 10 year-old with all the time in the world. Luckily, the road is paved with a host of unusual characters who keep things entertaining. Upon stopping at gas stations along his impromptu route, Gus rather haphazardly starts collecting game cards that contain one of the letters in the word M-O-T-O-R-A-M-A. Players who find all 8 letters can claim a $500 million dollar prize from the Chimera Gas Company. As soon a Gus has a few successes, he begins to obsess over finding the remaining cards. In the process, Gus gradually transitions fromĀ  and understandably cynical 10-year old runaway explaining the relative innocence of his actions to the “enlightened” gas station attendant named Phil, to a deceptive gambler who happily hustles overconfident competitors. Somehow a brief adolescent daydream fills Gus’s head; the dream girl of course, played by young Barrymore. But by the end of the film, the 10-year appears noticeably aged and run down–after dodging an explosion his hair appears to have grayed. He wears an eye patch to conceal injuries received when getting caught trying to siphon gas from a seedy couple (which includes Mary Woronov). And strangely, he is eventually trying to rescue an older version of himself before future tense Gus drives off the road while, in a panic, trying to find that one last letter to claim his award money, loses control of his car.

Although this kind of tale might be off-putting or just simply confusing to the viewer not typically accustomed to movies like these, the narrative construction is the interesting element — the circular storytelling of character reflection. That is uses a 10-year old as its central character is perhaps its most distinctive draw. Unfortunately, while making the transition to DVD faster than probably more well-known cult films (The Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps come to mind), it is a film that remains woefully absent in background information of any kind (considered bonus materials for the DVD, all that is included is a trailer of Motorama and a mismatched companion trailer for the idiotic David Spade comedy, Joe Dirt.