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No country for young knuckleheads

A Coen brothers comedy about dolts gone wild signals a new mood at the movies

Brian D. Johnson September 22 2008
THE BACK PAGES

No country for young knuckleheads

A Coen brothers comedy about dolts gone wild signals a new mood at the movies

Brian D. Johnson September 22 2008

No country for young knuckleheads

A Coen brothers comedy about dolts gone wild signals a new mood at the movies

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

film

At the Toronto International Film Festival, which wraps up this weekend, no movie was more keenly anticipated than Burn After Reading, the latest offering from the Coen brothers. And not just because it stars Brad Pitt and George Clooney dumbing down their debonair savoir faire. It was because of the high expectations raised by the Coens’ previous film, No Country For Old Men, which triumphed at the Oscars. In what was perhaps the strongest year for American cinema since the 1970s, No Country was more than a diabolically clever tale of a psycho killer; it felt important—the best in a wave of movies about violent cruelty that echoed the paranoia of a country at war with an intangible enemy. And with its unlikely mix of wit and compassion, it also seemed to indicate that the Coen brothers had finally grown up, and stopped snickering at their own characters.

No such luck. With their new movie, the boys are back to their old tricks. The tricks work, and this screwball comedy is genuinely funny, even if it evaporates like invisible ink as soon as it’s over. In that sense it’s emblematic of a marked shift in the tone of American movies. TIFF tends to set the table for the spread of prestige pictures that will later be vying for Oscars. And this year whimsy trumped angst as comedies prevailed among the most prominent U.S. fare.

Like so many Coen brothers comedies, Burn After Reading generates laughs at the expense of its characters. Set in Washington, it unfolds as an egg-and-spoon race among a declension of knuckleheads, all suffering from various delusions of intelligence—acting like they’re in a spy thriller when in fact they’re just in a Coen brothers movie.

It’s curious to see how savvy each of the actors is in feigning stupidity. John Malkovich, usually typecast as the smartest guy in the room, does it best. Spitting profanity, he devours his role as Osborne Cox, a pretentious CIA man who seethes at the idiocy of others, while blithely unaware of his own. Outraged after he’s fired for a mere “drinking problem,” Cox sets out to write a memoir (that’s how he pronounces it), which falls into the hands of a gym instructor (Frances McDormand), who hopes to finance her cosmetic surgery by selling it to the Russians.

Clooney finesses a goofy role as a poseur who jogs obsessively, is having an affair with Cox’s acidic wife (Tilda Swinton)—and is handcrafting a dildo machine in his basement. As McDormand’s boneheaded colleague at Hard Bodies gym, Brad Pitt gives the film’s one offkey performance, hamming it up to the point that his character becomes a cartoon. Pitt would have been more effective if he’d simply played himself, flashed his abs, and let the script do the heavy lifting.

The Coen brothers insist their movie is not intended as a comment on Washington. “It’s not about George Bush or anything specific,” Ethan Coen told a press conference in Toronto. “We’ve all got the inner knucklehead.” But then his brother, Joel, suggested that McDormand’s conspiratorial character might just

have been inspired by Linda Tripp.

The Coens resist all attempts to ascribe significance to their movies, or plug them into the American Zeitgeist. But whether they like it or not, Burn Before Reading signals a climate change in Hollywood. “What we’ve really noticed is the return of the comedy to U.S. cinema,” says TIFF co-director Piers Handling, pointing to the impetus of Juno, which “struck at exactly the right moment.”

At TIFF, the Juno effect was directly evident in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, featuring the tadpole power of Canadian Michael Cera. It’s like Juno without a plot, or even an issue, as Cera and Kat Dennings drift through an indie-rock soundtrack and a benign New York night. Then there was the picaresque mischief of The Brothers Bloom, with Rachel Weisz coming between two con artists (Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo). And in a departure from dark, revisionist westerns, Appaloosa offered a neoclassical adventure about a gal (Renée Zellweger) coming between two gunslingers (Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen).

Like Burn After Reading, they’re all comedies of errors. As was the festival’s runaway hit, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, which careens between raw emotion and giddy laughter like a drunken wedding guest. This tale of a rehab refugee (Anne Hathaway) at her sister’s wedding is of no great consequence. But it offers characters we can embrace, along with their foibles, because in the end we’re no smarter than they are. Nl