August 27, 2008

Venice. Burn After Reading.

A first take from Ronald Bergan. Notes on other reviews will follow.

Burn After Reading Burn After Filming, more likely. Opening the Venice Film Festival tonight is another attempt by the Coen Brothers to enter the mainstream, trying to live down the time when their films were more personal, quirky and less commercial. Here the starry cast does their one-dimensional turn: George Clooney is the skirt chaser, an uncharming Cary Grant, Brad Pitt plays a bubble head gum-chewing gym trainer, John Malkovich is his irascible self. The women come off worse. Tilda Swinton and Elizabeth Marvel play two coldly intellectual cheating wives, a doctor and a children's author respectively, and Frances McDormand, the most irritating character, is so dumb she doesn't know the Cold War is long over. It seems that the Coens had so little confidence in their own convoluted plot, involving the CIA, that they make fun of it when an agent tries to explain the intricacies of the happenings to his superior. Despite some attempts at contemporary relevance, it really is a very old-fashioned juvenile farce, with elements of the 70s paranoia films, which except for the stream of "fuck"s, could have been made a few decades ago.

Updated through 8/31.

Burn After Reading was preceded by an extract from soon-to-be centenarian Manoel de Oliveira's new work in progress, From Visible To Invisible, whose one joke is more amusing than any of the many feeble ones in the Coen Brothers movie. Deliciously, even at 7 minutes, Oliveira has time for two long shots of a street in Sao Paulo, in which nothing much happens but sets the tone.

- Ronald Bergan

The Guardian's Andrew Pulver offers an alternative take: "Clocking in at a crisp 95 minutes, Burn After Reading is a tightly wound, slickly plotted spy comedy that couldn't be in bigger contrast to the Coens' last film, the bloodsoaked, brooding No Country for Old Men. Burn, in comparison, is bit of a bantamweight: fast moving, lots of attitude, and uncorking a killer punch when it can."

Meanwhile, we've got a contest going on at the main site.

Updates: "[T]he Coen brothers revert to sophomoric snarky mode in Burn After Reading," writes Variety's Todd McCarthy. "A seriously talented cast has been asked to act like cartoon characters in this tale of desperation, mutual suspicion and vigorous musical beds, all in the name of laughs that only sporadically ensue. Everything here, from the thesps' heavy mugging to the uncustomarily overbearing score by Carter Burwell and the artificially augmented vulgarities in the dialogue, has been dialed up to an almost grotesquely exaggerated extent, making for a film that feels misjudged from the opening scene and thereafter only occasionally hits the right note."

"The first film in the Coen Brothers' two-picture pact with Focus Features and Working Title is a smart urban screwball comedy about the perils of idiocy that uses its all-star cast to dazzling and often hilarious effect," writes Lee Marshall for Screen Daily. "A beautifully produced mix of spy story, US zeitgeist satire and relationship drama, Burn After Reading cons the audience into seeing depths – and Fargo parallels - that don't really exist. The consumate, near-throwaway ending sets the record straight: it's a feelgood comedy so enjoy the ride and don't take it all so seriously."

In FilmInFocus, Nick Dawson looks back over the Coens' ouevre while David Parkinson examines Best Director Oscar followups in Academy history.

Shane Danielsen at indieWIRE: "A comedy set in the world of espionage, constructed around an interlocking set of misunderstandings and misrepresentations, it has something of the accumulative, shaggy-dog structure of The Big Lebowski, the one of their films it most closely resembles. More amusing than actually funny, it's briskly-paced and well acted - Brad Pitt, in particular, is superb. The dialogue is sharp; it moves briskly. Still, something is missing."

"This is the Coens' first self-penned original screenplay since The Man Who Wasn't There in 2001, and it has in common with some of their earlier pictures, specifically Raising Arizona and Fargo, a savagely comic taste for creative violence and a slightly mocking eye for detail," writes Wendy Ide in the London Times. "Carter Burwell's brilliant score is the most paranoid piece of film music since Quincy Jones's neurotic soundtrack for The Anderson Tapes - it's particularly well-judged as it brings a gravity to a collection of characters who we could otherwise dismiss as numbskulls and nincompoops. The attention to detail is impeccable: the Coens can even raise a laugh with something as simple as a well-placed photograph of Vladimir Putin... [W]hile the film carries the audience with its entertaining, if somewhat ludicrous, blend of high level espionage and ab-toning exercises, it would perhaps be more rewarding if we could like the characters as well as laugh at them."

"It takes a while to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humor of Burn because this is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly," writes Kirk Honeycutt in the Hollywood Reporter. "The key thing is that every actor is riffing on his or her screen persona. The guys who pulled off all those casino heists, the smart-cookie South Dakota police officer, the stars of many Sundance films - yep, they're all idiots."

"Burn After Reading is a terrific entertainment: fast-paced, inventive and relentlessly amusing," writes the Telegraph's David Gritten. "The Coens have taken a sledgehammmer to the notion, advanced in film after film, that espionage is a business pursued by grim-faced people blessed with total competence.... [I]t's far better than their most recent forays into comic terrain. In short, a fine, agreeable film to open a major festival."

Update, 8/30: "With its coldly satirical tone, stylized dialogue and broadly drawn characters, Burn will feel like familiar territory for longtime fans, a return to Coen Country for Odd Men," writes Bruce Headlam in a profile for the New York Times. "Is Burn a deliberate return to form, a step away from being Very Important Oscar-Winning Filmmakers? 'It was nothing like that,' Ethan said. 'To tell you the truth, we started writing down actors we wanted to work with.'"

Updates, 8/31: "The ultimate question, from this admirer of virtually all the brothers' work, from the early Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing to their previous Clooney collaborations O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and [Intolerable Cruelty], is a plaintive 'What the heck kind of film is this?'" Time's Richard Corliss: "As close to an answer as you'll get here is that Burn After Reading is an essay in the cocoon of ignorance most of us live in. It pushes the old form of movie comedy - smart people saying clever things - into collision with today's dominant model of slackers whose utterly unfounded egotism eventually worms its way into an audience's indulgence."

"In Fargo, the Coens found the perfect balance between comedy and pathos, real life and the absurd, but in Burn After Reading (like in Barton Fink), the opposing forces never quite strike a balance," writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Auteurs' Notebook.

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Posted by dwhudson at August 27, 2008 8:08 AM


I take it that Bergen is not a big fan of the Coens in general.

Posted by: Bob at August 27, 2008 9:10 AM

Bob, I wrote a biography of them a few years ago when they were among the most interesting American indie spirits. Sadly, they have become more and more mainstream, and less and less interesting. Read the update of my biography which details their sad decline in the last chapters.

Posted by: at August 27, 2008 9:43 AM

Bergan was leaving comments on this blog a while back making clear his disdain of the Coens current work, while pimping his book about their earlier efforts. He even specifically said he had no interest in seeing Burn.

It makes no sense to have somebody who's admittedly so predisposed to disliking a movie offer his review.

Posted by: at August 27, 2008 9:49 AM

Since, thanks to the constant spam onslaught, I need to read and "approve" each comment here at the Daily, I've naturally read all of Ronald's, too. And I certainly wasn't under the impression that he was "predisposed" to dislike Burn After Reading.

FWIW - and let me emphasize that I've not seen the film, and I sincerely hope it's terrific - I don't find the trailer and clips I have seen very promising.

Posted by: David Hudson at August 27, 2008 9:54 AM

I hope it is terrific too.

Posted by: Nick Plowman at August 27, 2008 10:22 AM

I generally like the Coen bros., and I loved No Country for Old Men, but Burn After Reading really looks like a nothing movie from all of the clips that I've seen. Nothing about the clips that I've seen even gives any hint that it was shot and lit by the great Emmanuel Lubezki. This movie looks like it's more in the vein of the remake of The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty (which I would pick as the worst Coen bros. movie).

Posted by: Emperor Tomato Catsup at August 27, 2008 12:31 PM

Damn, that's really surprising news. I've also been lamenting the Coen Brothers decline and move into the mainstream ever since Intolerable Cruelty. Even the overpraised No Country was not a complete return to form.

But I've read the script to Burn and think it's the funniest thing they've done since O Brother. The casting sounds absolutely perfect (Brad Pitt needs way more comedic roles). The trailer is hilarious. I just cannot fathom how this movie could suck...

I'm now radically lowering my expectations. Hopefully A Serious Man will be their true return to form (*that* script blew me away - perhaps their most profound work yet).

Posted by: dave at August 27, 2008 1:05 PM

I'm never 'predisposed to disliking a film'. I'm always hoping that my time in the cinema will be an enlightening, enthralling, exciting experience. In this case, especially having spent some time writing about the Coens, naturally I hoped that they would return to their earlier form so that I would have more to 'pimp' about. Anyway, after feeling lonely for a while in my dislike of Burn After Reading, I began to meet others who shared my opinion.

Posted by: ronald bergan at August 27, 2008 2:17 PM

Having not seen it yet I have no idea how I'll react and its entirely possible I'll be disappointed with it as well, but I do hope people remember these are also the guys who did Raising Arizona (which I loved, and maybe Ronald liked it as well), which is just a great comedy and rather silly. I'm sure they wanted to do something lighter after No Country. Anyway, am certainly curious about it but will expect to check my brain at the door at the least.


Posted by: Craig P at August 27, 2008 3:08 PM

Is it my imagination or did the Coens always alternate more serious, even grim films with lighter, more crowd-pleasing fare? Seems like a normal cycle. I just hope it's a good film ... the trailers, to me, looked way too broad for my tastes. Then I remember "Raising Arizona."

Posted by: Rick at August 28, 2008 7:07 PM

What's a return to form from the Coen Bros going to look like? What kind of form would they returning to? They've been making screwball comedies with little to no plot about as long as I can remember. This one looks to fall into the Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona category. In fact, maybe it is a return to form -- one of many forms they carry around.

Posted by: cabin boy at September 2, 2008 8:44 AM