burn after reading and the clooney effect

The handsomest idiot in the whole wide world.

Saw Burn After Reading over the weekend. It’s funny, not in the top tier of the Coen canon but well worth seeing. And yes—if you’ve read reviews to this effect—it makes no sense, but it does so in the proper Coen brothers way. Which is to say, this movie never pretends to a linear structure, so the Evil at least wasn’t bothered when the loose ends failed to tie themselves into a neat bow. Though there were folks in the theater grumbling in perplexity as the audience filed out.

Burn did make the Evil wonder, though, why it wasn’t a top-tier Coen movie. And he realized it’s the actors. Specifically Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

Don’t get the Evil wrong; both of them were great. But for the Evil’s tastes, there’s a pretty clear demarcation in the general quality of Coen movies. (For this exercise he’s excepting No Country For Old Men, since it was adapted fairly meticulously from the novel and not a Coen original.) It began with O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Evil will never understand people’s infatuation with O Brother—it’s fine, but near the bottom of Evil’s “Coen Brothers Greatest Hits” List. But that’s not the point. Point is, O Brother really began the influx of major, A-list actors to Coen movies. And Evil believes their movies have lost something because of it.

Flicks that used to star average-looking (or worse) actors—Buscemis, Turturos, Goodmans, Cages—are now populated by Clooneys, Pitts, Hankses and Zeta-Joneses, with the old faithful Coen crew relegated further and further into the background. (Which is why we’re lucky Frances McDormand, a great actress but normal-looking person, is married to a Coen and continues to inhabit their films.) There was a verisimilitude to the idiocy of the characters in the Coens’ movies that you just can’t get with George Clooney. It’s not that good-looking people can’t be idiots . . . it’s not that Clooney wouldn’t have been as good as Cage in Raising Arizona . . . but having Cage’s goofy mug onscreen makes it feel less like a Hollywood production than an actual documentary about a white-trash kidnapping gone wrong.

Now take Burn After Reading. There’s a scene, in which Pitt faces off with John Malkovich, that had the Evil chortling nonstop. Pitt’s great, but he’s still Brad freakin’ Pitt—even if you give him absurd blond highlights and put him in biker’s spandex. You always feel a mixture of pity and contempt for any good Coen brothers creation, but Brad’s Pittness reminds you not to feel too bad for his dumbass character. If this movie had been made in 1998, though, and you put Buscemi in the car with Malkovich—well, then the idiocy stops feeling scripted and starts feeling real. You laugh less because it’s farcical and more because you can really see this scenario unfolding . . . and know that there but for the grace of God go you.


4 thoughts on “burn after reading and the clooney effect”

  1. You know, I don’t really like movies all that much. I know it sounds weird coming from a guy who makes them, but it’s just true. I mean, I like art, and I live in “reality,” but Entertainment is more or less lost on me at this point. There are some filmmakers that can trick me now and then into thinking I’m getting reality (documentaries) or whose art entertains me, but the standard Hollywood “let’s just go kill two hours watching something make-believe for the hell of it ain’t what it used to be when I was a kid.

    So, this is an interesting point, because maybe it explains why I can tolerate indie, low-budget entertainment more than I can the usual stuff — better at conning me into thinking I’ve spent the last two hours productively than, say, Die Hard XXVIII does

  2. one note evil forgot to add: kudos to the composer and cinematographer, who combined to make burn after reading look and sound just like a thriller even as the idiotic characters were rushing about.

  3. ok, so now i read it and i’m still not sure you liked it.

    however, i do agree somewhat about the “star” overpowering the role and making it harder to get lost in the farsical moment…

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