Perception that the Coen brothers are running a little low on inspiration, albeit still nowhere near empty, will not now need to be radically revised. Remake: The Ladykillers. Book adaptation: No Country for Old Men. And their latest effort, Burn after Reading, even though an original, is at a glance a revisitation of their favored stupidity theme. Back to the well once more. Much, even so, may be said in their defense.
The first thing to be said is that, no matter in how many ways and how many guises they have visited it (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, that one above all, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the secondhand Ladykillers, at least the Llewellyn Moss protagonist in No Country...), the stupidity theme remains timeless and timely in a country where George W. Bush can have twice — twice! — been elected President, and where the worst aspersion that can be cast on a Democratic aspirant to the office is “elitist.” A thinking man might suppose that a competing Republican aspirant who owns seven or eight houses could be tagged a kind of elitist, too. But after all, a poor man has an easier time in identifying with, or envying, the rich man than a bonehead has in identifying with or envying the egghead. It takes less imagination. It takes no more than, to put a fine point on it, stupidity.
The next thing to be said is that, although no overt politics emerge, the placement of the stupidity theme within the Washington, D.C., intelligence community is highly strategic, calculating, revitalizing, resonating, and, well, intelligent. (The memorable line from the original Manchurian Candidate swims up from the depths: “Intelligence officer! Stupidity officer is more like it.”) True to form, true as ever to their innate artfulness and integrity, the Coens do not permit themselves the luxury and convenience of a mouthpiece on screen.
The character railing against the “morons” and “idiots” of the world, almost invariably “fucking morons” and “fucking idiots,” is a mid-level CIA analyst (John Malkovich) who, out of concern over his alcohol intake, has been shoved off “the Balkans desk” and, in effect, out the door, whereupon he sets to work desultorily on an incendiary memoir, fastidiously pronounced “memwah,” in between drinks and daytime TV game shows. We might recall that the anti-Hollywood railing in Barton Fink, to whatever extent the Coens would have agreed with it, was put in the mouth of a sanctimonious swellhead.
The agent’s flinty wife (Tilda Swinton) is meanwhile letting her hair down and pulling her knickers off for a tightly wound, twitchy T-man (George Clooney) who prides himself on never having fired his weapon in twenty years of “personal protection” service, and who, unbeknownst to the CIA man’s wife but not to his own wife, is a serial philanderer. (Both wives, while not the tiniest bit nurturing by nature, are professionally involved with children: pediatrician and kiddie-lit author.) In furtive preparation for divorce, the CIA wife prudently copies her husband’s computer files onto a CD, inchoate memoir included, which finds its way, via the capacious purse of her attorney’s receptionist, to the locker-room floor in a Hardbodies Fitness Center. One of the cheerful trainers there (Brad Pitt) can’t make heads or tails of the “secret shit” on it, but he feels sure that a Good Samaritan, indistinguishable from a blackmailer, would be due a reward for its return. Failing that, his conspiratorial co-worker (Frances McDormand), in hopes of financing four separate cosmetic surgeries to “reinvent” herself, is prepared to peddle the disc to the Russian Embassy: “I told Mr. Krapkin I might be stopping by.” (True words spoken: McDormand’s body is manifestly “not a phony-baloney Hollywood body.”) The stupidity theme has thus been interlaced with themes of deception, discontentment, self-delusion, double lives. The film, if I need to make it plainer, is a comedy, but a pretty deep one.
Another thing to be said for the Coens is that, however repetitive the theme, there is no slacking off in technique and execution. The fast hour and a half is consistently, uninsistently funny, with only a rare lapse in taste (a homemade marital aid, a couple of splashes of Scorsese-esque gore) and never really a lapse in tone. And although the regular and reliable Roger Deakins has been replaced with Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, most noteworthily), the cinematography doesn’t suffer, with its crystal-clear air, its fine-line focus, and its scythe-like camerawork, angling slightly upwards, attacking from all sides, intermittently cutting a path in a spurt of purposeful fluidity. Gratuitous beautiful shot: straight up into a falling rain from the neck-wrenching viewpoint of the CIA man when thwarted by a changed lock on his front stoop.
The Coens continue, too, to put to good use actors whom I thought priorly I disliked. One of these, Clooney, has become as tried-and-true a Coen repertory player as John Turturro or Steve Buscemi ever was (and seems, alas, to be no more). But another one, Pitt, is new to the team — though if I remember right, he had been attached to an earlier Coen project, a war film, that never came to fruition — and he has been entrusted with the brunt of the de rigueur hair humor, a flaxen streak in his whisk-broom bristles. It would not be intended as any sort of insult to say that he is completely credible as a birdbrain, conventionally amusing when boogeying to his inaudible iPod, but uniquely amusing when striving to be properly hugger-mugger, narrowing his eyes and dropping into sotto voce confidentiality. Pretty much the same could be said for the bilious Malkovich — the prior dislike, the newness to the team — except he has no hair and instead rubs his head as sensuously as any bowling ball was rubbed in The Big Lebowski. McDormand and Swinton, along with Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons, J.R. Horne, and Jeffrey DeMunn, I have no difficulty liking.
The final thing to be said (not that there aren’t more things that could be said) is that, after reaching the top of Mount Oscar with No Country for Old Men, and in spite of the blinding Star Power of Clooney and Pitt, the Coens are still the Coens. Joel and Ethan, co-writers and co-directors. Box-office receipts to the contrary, these filmmakers have always been commercial. They have simply never been avaricious. Never been panderers, never sellouts. If they have been held back in public acceptance, the reasons in large part would be because it’s abundantly clear that regardless how stupid their characters, they themselves are smarties. (Elitists, if you must.) They are not the Farrelly brothers. Dumb as their dumbbells. Burn after Reading typically offers the viewer no one to identify with, apart, that is, from the unseen Coens. (Notice, for instance, that while the Clooney character has a fascination with flooring, the Coens’ camera disdains to follow his interest.) It divides its time democratically among all the main cast members, granting no special favors to Pitt and Clooney, who incidentally spend no more than a split second together. And, a lesson applied from No Country for Old Men, it perversely allows major developments to transpire offscreen. All of that shouldn’t prevent its popularity. It should merely limit it.
P.S. Happy fifty-first birthday to Ethan this coming Sunday, September 21.