Carly at the Movies: This is Coen Brothers Country

Column by Carl Larsen

Lucky for us film fans, the Coen Brothers march to the beat of their own bizarre drum. Their latest offbeat effort, “Burn After Reading,” is currently playing at the Colonial Mall Cinemas and will soon move to the Dixie in Downtown Staunton.

The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, write and direct most of their own movies in their own way. I had to watch their first film, “Blood Simple” (1984), several times before I began to appreciate it. Their second was the hilariously irreverent “Raising Arizona” (1987), and their third was the strange, baffling, incomprehensible “Miller’s Crossing” in 1992. I didn’t like it, and still don’t.

So I had no idea how I felt about their body of work until lightning struck in 1996 with their master work, “Fargo.” Since then I’ve been a big fan, and they’ve led us through a maze of amazing movies up to last year’s “No Country for Old Men.”

Now with “Burn After Reading” they’ve presented us with a very funny film based on the premise that everybody wants something, everybody is goofy, and no one knows what the hell is going on. If you can buy that, you’ll laugh your knickers off at this one.

George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and a host of other stars in supporting roles step way beyond the boundaries of their stereotypical images to spoof the Washington intelligence-gathering community and the kind of techno-thrillers we’ve been stuck with ever since the invention of computers.

Two hopelessly hapless gym employees (Pitt and McDormand) find a disc full of notes for the memoirs of an angry CIA agent (Malkovich) and attempt to extort money from him for its return. That starts the ball rolling uphill, and as it gathers speed, sub-plots spin off like sparks from a screeching choo-choo.

I’ve never been a big fan of Brad Pitt, and I’ve never enjoyed him as much as I did in this film. He’s a finger-snapping, greedy, cheerful, totally brainless goofball, and paired with McDormand – who’s completely focused on cosmetic surgery to change her life – becomes the unlikeliest pair of comic villains since, well, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in “Fargo.”

You can just see Clooney enjoying the heck out of his own performance as a sex-obsessed Treasury agent. And while the plot seems to meander a bit at first, you are drawn in (between fits of laughter at how serious and harebrained everyone seems to be) and eventually realize the plot is as tight as Alfred Hitchcock’s necktie.

Of course the funniest characters in a comedy are often those who are most serious, and both Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons could give Buster Keaton a run for his deadpan money in this one.

Tilda Swinton is also very good as Malkovich’s seething wife, but her subtle performance is mere background in a tidal wave of over-the-top characterizations.

I have no idea how these two guys keep coming up with such unique ways to look at the foibles of mankind, but in a world that spews out films that are increasingly morbid, comedy seems to be Coen Country.


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