Saturday, September 13, 2008

Here's To The Losers


n. pl. doo·fus·es Slang

An incompetent, foolish or stupid person.

[Origin uncertain. 1960-65, Americanism; prob. alter. of earlier goofus, in same sense; or perhaps blend of doof, fool (from Scots) and goofus, fool (from goof).]


Joel and Ethan do love a good doofus.

As far back as their second movie, Raising Arizona, the laughably inept moron has appeared in almost every one of their films. In some cases, the doofus is the prime mover or raison d'etre of the film: think of Jeff Bridges' iconic "Dude" in The Big Lebowski, or William H. Macy's "Jerry Lundegaard" in Fargo, or the trio of prison escapees in O Brother Where Art Thou? In other cases they're only a supporting doofus, like Jon Polito in The Man Who Wasn't There or John Goodman's "Walter Sobchak" in Lebowski. Either way, it couldn't really be a Coen brothers film without a stable of odd characters.

Their last film, the Best Picture Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, seemed to rely less on doofuses for plot development than any other of their films, probably due to Cormac McCarthy's strong (and faithfully-rendered) source material. But even then, the ancillary parts were peopled with Coen characters, from the toad-like trailer park secretary to Carla Jean's crotchety old mother (who is dying of "the cancer") to Sheriff Bell's raw deputy, who seems the greenest thing amid the sere backdrop of the West Texas desert.

In addition to their trademark characters, there's an inky darkness that oozes through the cracks of every Coen brothers story that marks their work as theirs alone. Their dramas all have darkly laughable moments (Sheriff Bell's comic relief amid the grimness of No Country), and their comedies are often punctuated with graphic violence and death (Peter Stormare in Fargo holding onto a human foot as he pushes a corpse through a wood-chipper). The present effort does not disappoint. They retain the ability to shock and surprise us, following their odd formula that gives a certain sameness to their films, even when it seems like the sameness of not following any formula at all.

Their latest film might be subtitled A Confederacy of Doofuses, or maybe Madmen, Maladjusts and Miscreants. Burn After Reading is the perfect distillation of Coen-ness without the burdens of fidelity to preexisting source material or even the focus of much meaningful underlying story. Not that there isn't an ongoing plotline, but like The Man Who Wasn't There or The Big Lebowski this latest film seems all about craft and the art of how a story is told rather than about the story itself. Obviously, this puts quite a burden on the filmmaker, and I daresay not many people could make their personal vision so compelling.

No, I'd go even further: nobody but the Coens could have made this movie.

The film has three or four distinct story lines. 1) John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a sour, hair-trigger CIA analyst who finds himself out of work after decades at the department. His wife, played by Tilda Swinton, has about reached the end of her rope with Osborne. His unemployment--and his seeming unconcern about it--is bad enough, but his decision to write a "memoir" puts her over the edge. 2) A computer disc containing a draft of his book-in-progress and his personal financial records falls out of the gym bag of Katie Cox's divorce lawyer's secretary, where it is picked up by a couple of dimwitted employees of the Hardbodies Fitness Center, played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand. These two figure the information on the disc represents valuable "raw intelligence," and they decide, without really thinking about it, to blackmail Cox with the disc. McDormand's character, Linda Litzke, is hell-bent on undergoing a suite of cosmetic surgeries since, she says, "I've gone as far as this body's going to take me." Shocked that her health insurance will not cover tens of thousands of dollars of elective procedures, she is frantic to find money to fulfill her dream. This all goes off like a five-year-old who finds the keys to daddy's bulldozer. 3) Former Treasury agent and U.S. Marshall Henry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is a chronic womanizer whose own marriage is in rather worse shape than he grasps. One of his longer-term lovers is Osborne Cox's carnivorous wife, Katie. Pfarrer is a first rate cad, preening and self-conscious and plastic as a TV game show host. He wears a gun (which he has never fired) as part of his uniform kit, a calculated factoid which never fails to get a rise out of his conquests. Linda Litzke becomes one of those conquests, and his sleeping with both women--Linda Litzke and Katie Cox--is one of the threads that holds the whole story together. More or less. Lastly, 4) Litzke's boss at Hardbodies, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), has a soft spot for Litzke, but his timid overtures fail by a wide margin to penetrate her thick skull. Larger gestures are needed, and circumstances provide the opportunity.

What is odd about these separate-but-connected stories is that collectively they don't add up to anything meaningful. On the contrary. Each story is compelling in its own way, but looking at them collectively removes any hope of focus. The wider the net is cast, the more random and meaningless the whole becomes.

And that, one has to assume, is their point (if they can be said to have a point beyond telling a Coen Brothers story). Things of moment for each character individually become almost happenstance with a single step backward, and shrink to invisibility with even one more retreating step. And life is like that. We're all wrapped up in shit that doesn't really matter, certainly not to most other people, and often not even to ourselves ultimately. And people DO regularly suffer consequences for things they neither understand nor have anything to do with. As the chief of some C.I.A. branch (played by the fabulous J. K. Simmons) is briefed on the goings-on (presumably because Cox and Pfarrer are, or were, government entities) we realize just how cockamamie the whole story is, and how futile it is to read meaning in the splattered guts. ...but there are splattered guts, so the story matters to somebody.

As for the Confederacy of Doofuses: all of these characters sport varying degrees of doofiosity or misalignment, from Brad Pitt's pretty-boy airheadedness to Tilda Swinton's fire-breathing executive who hammers on the table while exclaiming "I do not hammer!" to J. K. Simmons's C.I.A. chief who makes the half-informed snap judgments which seem to be accepted as part of his official job duties. There's hardly an honorable straight-shooter in the whole motley cast, except for Richard Jenkins' Hardbodies manager (and we're not really sure about him, either). It's certainly not a ringing endorsement of humanity. There's something very Coen in this. No Country for Old Men was unusual for them in that all three main characters were men of great, quiet competence, which made for an epic battle. Contrast that to their more usual fare, movies like Fargo and Lebowski, which are celebrations of collective bungling.

They've cast the movie fantastically. I've always loved and admired George Clooney. As a man renowned for being pretty, he refuses to take himself seriously, and he's the first to laugh at himself and all the People Magazine paparazzi Hollywood bullshit that goes with being a Pretty Movie Star. (Contrast this with Sylvester Stallone, who seems a pumped-up and grim and self-important mediocrity.) I've always gotten a bit of this same George Clooney vibe from Brad Pitt, and he confirms it here, playing a doofus's doofus, a fitness-obsessed bimbo who has nothing but his looks going for him. Frances McDormand has been in several Coen brothers films, as seems fitting for the wife of one of the duo. And she never fails to hit her marks. She was fantastic in Fargo, and while she doesn't have quite the challenge here she is still a delight on the screen.

And John Malkovich just seems an inspired bit of casting as the Prime Doofus. An established first-rate actor, he has nonetheless been off the radar a bit in recent years. And here he gets to play a juicy role as an unattractive, overwrought man whose favorite word is "fuck." For filmmakers noted for their doofuses, his work gets to take its rightful place on their top shelf.

I've seen the film twice, both times in a theater packed to the last seat. And the audience howled through the whole thing, including all the areas where you're sure you probably shouldn't be laughing but can't help yourself. It's yet another effort from this singular team of filmmakers.

Grade: A-

P.S. One other thing: the movie begins and ends with a warning horn blatting over a blank screen. For those who've seen the movie, do you recall where you heard that horn before? It's the warning horn used in 2001: A Space Odyssey before astronaut David Bowman blows the emergency hatch on his service pod to force his way back into the ship when the malfunctioning HAL computer is trying to keep him out.

So what's up with that?


Malaise Inc said...

George Clooney is a great actor, but seems to do his best work in screwball comedies like "Oh Brother" and "Intolerable Cruelty." My wife and I have commented that he is the modern day Carey Grant.

Karlo said...

You've convinced me to go see it!

wunelle said...

I feel now that I'd like to see it a third time. Patience, I suppose; the DVD will be coming in a couple months...

shrimplate said...

If only the Coen brothers would make a film with a Chopin score played by Fliter...

Their work is always worth the effort it takes to get through it. That's something I look for in a variety of "entertainment" experiences: that sort-of resonance.

When we saw No Country, at the end of the film somebody up front called out loudly "So why did we come see this movie?" and they were being sarcastic. But to me, that's an ongoing question.

Maybe I sat in on too many film classes back in university.

wunelle said...

That's actually a really good way to look at their films, and something I've not really thought about. A "resonance."