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Javier Bardem called, and he wants his wig back: McDormand in Burn After Reading.

Much Ado About Nothing

By John Brodeur

Burn After Reading

Directed 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, D.C.

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.

You Want That Doughnut?

Righteous Kill

Directed 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.

—Ann Morrow

Daffy Dames

The Women

Directed 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 movie.

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.

—Laura Leon


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