Bardem called, and he wants his wig back: McDormand in
Burn After Reading.
Ado About Nothing
by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Oh, those crazy Coen brothers. Years of following their own
rules made them the most recognizable, if not best, names
working in modern film. And finally, after 20-some-odd years
in the business, they were rewarded with an Academy Award
for last year’s No Country for Old Men, a meditation
on the seeming randomness of life, on how one person’s little
decisions and discoveries can affect the lives of numerous
individuals, by turns darkly hilarious and brutally violent.
From two guys who had already helmed a number of top-tier
films, this one felt like a tour de force. So, what next?
A complete throwaway, in the best sense of the term: Burn
After Reading is absurd and hysterical, and makes practically
no sense. With about a dozen characters to keep tabs on, it’s
“all bureaucracy and no mission,” in the words of ex-CIA man
Osborne Cox. That is to say, pretty much everyone gets equal
screen time, not that they deserve it. There’s not a single
character in the film worth rooting for, with the possible
exception of Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who is just caught
up in the blissful wonder of the adventure. It’s a film about,
as Cox puts it, a “league of morons”—and it’s a blast.
Cox (John Malkovich, in his funniest role since playing himself
in Being John Malkovich) quits his job as a CIA analyst
after being demoted because of his so-called (and so-real)
“drinking problem.” His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), intends
to divorce him; at the advice of her lawyer, she copies files
from Osborne’s computer—including notes for his “memoirs”—onto
a CD-R. A pair of hapless gym employees—Pitt’s Feldheimer,
and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, wearing a wig that looks
like a bleached-out version of Javier Bardem’s No Country
haircut)—stumble onto the disc, which has been left behind
accidentally by the divorce lawyer’s secretary. Litzke and
Feldheimer attempt to blackmail Osborne with the found information;
Litzke hopes to get money for “necessary” plastic surgery.
Meanwhile, Katie is sleeping with treasury agent Harry Pfarrer
(George Clooney, hamming it up like this were an Ocean’s
flick), who is in turn sleeping with most of Washington,
Although it may be purely contextual, Burn serves as
a companion piece for, or bizarro cousin of, No Country.
The randomness and consequence of the previous film is cranked
up to full-blast here; long buildups of suspense lead nowhere,
while fits of violence come out of the blue. Some critics
have called the film, particularly its closing segment—where
CIA agents played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons basically
read off the fates of several of the main characters—a “middle
finger” from the Coen brothers to viewers who didn’t like
the vague, contemplative ending of No Country. And
why not? Remember, they followed Fargo with The
Big Lebowski—not particularly loved at the time, but check
the DVD sales. The Coens make as many odd left turns between
films as they do within them, and that’s what keeps them interesting.
That, and they make very good movies.
Want That Doughnut?
by Jon Avnet
Producer-director Jon Avnet (88 Minutes) hasn’t made
a halfway interesting movie since Fried Green Tomatoes,
and despite its marquee pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino,
Righteous Kill is anything but interesting. The film
opens with one of the most overused visuals in police dramas—
target practice at a firing range—and continues to tiredly
wend through every cliché ever to be associated with a badge
and gun. De Niro plays Turk, a hothead doing a slow boil over
the miscarriages of justice that are routine procedure in
the NYPD. Pacino is Rooster, his blasé partner of 30 years.
When Turk is driven by frustration to plant evidence, Rooster
reluctantly swallows his integrity to assist him. Together
in almost every scene (the movie’s heavily advertised selling
point), De Niro and Pacino exchange dialogue with all the
brio of two beat cops haggling over the last jelly doughnut
in the box.
Sometime after their misdeed, criminals known to both detectives
start turning up dead. The narrative is intercut with grainy
videotape—from an undefined time—of Turk dispassionately confessing
to 14 murders. Meanwhile two younger detectives (Donnie Wahlberg
and John Leguizamo, both terrible) suspect the veteran cops
are playing vigilante with a serial killer while Turk’s forensics
girlfriend (Carla Gugino), who plays increasingly rough in
the bedroom, investigates the murders on her own time. The
formulaic plotting might’ve been more tolerable if the dialogue
wasn’t so stale: When Turk tells Rooster, “We never had this
conversation,” and Rooster replies, “What conversation?” they
are not being ironic (and the director does the aging stars
no favors by padding the action with extended close-ups).
Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz also used a formula script for
the absorbingly twisty Inside Man, but that movie had
Spike Lee to pepper-spray the direction and Jodie Foster as
an ice-bitch spin doctor to send the procedurals careening.
Righteous Kill has rapper 50 Cent as coke-dealing club
owner, but the climactic bust only shows up the stupidity
of the characters’ motivations. Once again, Avnet has put
the drag in dragnet.
by Diane English
It’s very hard to experience a remake of any kind without
consideration of the original. This is especially true, of
course, when the precursor is a classic, as is the case with
the 1939 George Cukor film The Women. Based on the
stage play by Clare Booth Luce, the movie was—is—a stunning
example of sophisticated wit and razor-sharp observation about
the nature of the female sex. While some think that The
Women celebrates bitchiness, and consequently, panders
to a certain misogynist view of us gals, I think it gets right
to the heart of the matter: We’re all guided by animal forces
of nature and desire, some of us just hide it better. However,
in Diane English’s remake of The Women, we’re all guided
by greed, pure and simple. Cukor’s work, by comparison, seems
boldly modern and open-minded.
Opening to the vapid strains of a vanilla pop song about feeling
beautiful, The Women immediately objectifies its characters
as nothing more than their choice of footwear. Mary Haines
(Meg Ryan) is a young Martha Stewart, impossibly great at
everything she does, which includes cooking, gardening, throwing
benefits on the palatial lawns of her Connecticut home, and
designing clothes for her daddy’s stodgy fashion house. Oh,
and did I mention that she spends a lot of time with her BFFs,
rag editor Sylvie (Annette Bening), perennially pregnant Edie
(Debra Messing), and lesbian writer Alex (a sadly underused
Jada Pinkett Smith)? The bottom falls out of Mary’s carefully
manicured existence with the revelation that hubby Stephen
is messing around with perfume-counter spritzer girl Crystal
Allen (a sadly underused Eva Mendez).
The 1939 movie was frank about the racial and class distinctions
that punctuate life. The new movie pretends that such distinctions
are a thing of the past—after all, Alex is successful, and
look, she’s black! It’s made quite evident that Mary’s salty
housekeeper (Cloris Leachman) could easily get employment
elsewhere, implying she’s on equal footing with, or even superior
footing to, say, Sylvie, whose job is always at the mercy
of her editor.
Crystal, of course, is dirt, but that’s because she’s shacking
up with a married man and not so much because she’s Hispanic
and working-class. Right? It all feels artificial, as if anything
that remotely smacked of a social hierarchy would make Mary
less sympathetic. The trouble is, she still doesn’t come across
as sympathetic. As English has written her—and all the other
characters—Mary is just a type, not a flesh-and-bones woman
whose joy at her wonderful life is palpable. When Mary confronts
Crystal in a dressing room, she yammers out something to the
effect of hoping that the two, in meeting, could come to a
“transcendental moment of connect.” At this point, you realize—if
you didn’t already—that this is going to be a really long
What I missed most in English’s The Women is the delightful
bitchiness, the fact that even good friends can’t resist a
little gossip among themselves, and the ability to use that
gossip to one’s advantage. In Cukor’s version, Mary ultimately
triumphed over her nemesis by an adroit use of gossip and
connections. Did any viewer really find that she’d lowered
herself in so doing? In 2008, Mary and her friends worship
at the altar of BFFs, but it’s the kind of relationship whose
foundation is cocktails, dinners out, and all the latest accessories.
You don’t really get a sense of human connection, not even
in a repulsively unfunny birthing scene near the film’s conclusion.
In that, the principals gather together to worship at a new
altar, that of the movie’s only male character, and the aura
of holiness that English imparts is downright weird. Here,
all these women have suffered through the so-called vices
of the men in the lives, and yet, the birth of a boy is something
out of St. Matthew. When a nurse hands over the newborn, I
half expected, even wanted, that little tyke to piss right
in the collective eye of The Women, in part because
that would have been the most refreshingly real thing I’d
have seen in two hours, but mostly because it’s no worse than
these pampered, self-obsessed, boring she-devils deserve.