Sunday, September 14, 2008

Forget After Seeing


I usually don't concentrate too hard on reviews before I've seen a movie that I'm really looking forward to. I will sort of glance at the review sometimes, get the gist, and see the movie anyway, even it's bad. And I try not to read many reviews before I blog about a movie.

The movie I've been most anticipating this fall, the Coen brother's Burn After Reading, has already opened. I saw that the New York Times hated it, said it had no heart. But of course I went anyway.

The preview for this movie is so compelling: Pitt, Swinton, McDormand, Clooney, Malkovich! And the serious auteur filmmakers, returning back to their black comedy tone (Fargo, Raising Arizona) which I prefer over the violently malevolent shades of No Country for Old Men.

Clearly this movie was a palette cleanser for the Coens and their fans. After No Country for Old Men; I'm sure they just needed a break. Problem is, though, you can't go back and make a first film at the height of your career. That's what this felt like.

This movie disappoints on several levels. Pitt is playing a one-dimentional caricature, and frankly so is Swinton, Clooney and Malkovich. You can't like any of them, and worse: you can't really understand them or care about them. There's some giggles, sure, but their talents are wasted here. I really don't feel like dissecting what's bad about each of the performances, but here's a small detail that just drove me crazy: Pitt is supposed to be playing a dumb jock sort of personal trainer. An idiot who gets in way over his head as he tries to blackmail an ex-CIA operative after finding a disc of his personal data. The plot is simply about some how Dormand and Pitt try to get money out of this guy (Malkovich) and then, failing that, out of the Russians. A bunch of little inter-twined sup-plots keep the pace brisk. Anyway, Pitt's character is always carrying a water bottle. When he drinks from it, he holds his elbow up high like a little kid and sucks on the end like a nipple. He does this again and again and it's a piece of body language that is supposed to signal how childish he is, but it's way overdone, and he ends up playing the role (and the directors are at fault here, not Pitt) like a character in a one-laugh Saturday Night Live skit.

As for Swinton, she better be careful. After the (nuanced and interesting) role she had in Michael Clayton as an uptight PR professional, she dons similar hair and affect here to portray a surly adulterous doctor. Swinton could do anything--now that she's proven she can reign her exotic looks and ethereal technique into mainstream Hollywood (yes, the Coen bros are mainstream now), she ought to take a page from Julianne Moore's book and find material that offers more opportunity to display her otherworldly range (check out her early Jarman work) movies that work with rather than hide her rarity.

After seeing the movie I read the New York Times review more carefully and the New Yorker review as well. They panned it. But I disagree with them on McDormand. She's the hardest working actor here, for sure, and though she's plays a raging narcisissist whose sole purpose in life is to get four cosmetic surgeries which she believes will make her more desirable, I kind of liked her. I liked the single-mindedness of her vision. She starts Internet dating and she really knows what she wants, recognizes it when she sees it (someone handsome with a good sense of humor--Clooney), and doesn't take no for an answer--when it comes to the blackmailing scene, not from the CIA, not from the Russians, not from the insurance company who won't pay for her surgeries ("My doctor approved them!"). She kept me chuckling, but one can't help compare and contrast her role here with that in Fargo. In the latter, she was wholly sympathetic and complex.

A few things keep the movie watchable. I loved the short scenes in CIA headquarters--the way the big boss dismisses the blackmailing / murder incident casually, after the under-boss explains sheepishly what's happened. That was classic. And the actor Richard Jenkins (played the dead father in Six Feet Under) plays a really interesting character. So if you watch the minor roles, you'll see some complexity, but it's not enough. And I am entranced by the Coen's camera techniques and quick editing. Also, they can take something that is absolutely gruesome (a character gets shot in the forehead) and make it funny (the shooter freaks out). But this is trickery, not real film making, the kind that moves you and changes the way you see or understand something.

If you like the Coen brothers, I'm sure neither this blog nor wild horses will keep you from seeing this flick. You'll go anyway. I understand. I faithfully march to everything Woody Allen puts out, and usually walk out somewhat disappointed (not this year though). But check out Rotten Tomatoes--the audience rating is in the 70's; the critics' rating in the 50's. I stole the headline from the Wall Street Journal critic. It's appropriate.

1 comment:

CP said...

"like a character in a one-laugh Saturday Night Live skit". Well said. That's what was bothering me about Pitt's performance, too. Just couldn't put my finger on it.