Monday, September 15, 2008

Click After Reading


Six years ago, I sat in a small, quiet Hamline University conference room across from my graduate school adviser, and waited anxiously as she flipped through her notes on the first act of my thesis, a dark comedic screenplay called "Fake Your Own Death, Inc." After a micro-eternity, she looked up, cleared her throat and said, with an earnestness that only drove the stinger in deeper, "Okay, all of your characters are stupid. I mean, they're dumb people. Is that what you're going for?"

I was crushed. I thought I had devised a clever little movie idea. And my characters... well, they served the plot admirably. They weren't stupid--one of them was a was an economics professor, for crying out loud. So what was the problem? (The problem, as I later realized, was that she was right. When your characters do nothing but serve your plot, "stupid" is exactly how they appear.)

The new Coen Brothers movie, "Burn After Reading," reminded me of this story. The characters in the film aren't stupid because they're serving a plot; the purposely convoluted plot is actually there to serve the characters. The problem with the characters is that all of them are stupid pretty much all of the time, on purpose. And in such a scenario, as the great movie critic W.B. Yeats once said, "the centre cannot hold."

To be fair, the movie is definitely worth seeing. Any Coen Brothers movie is automatically better than 80 percent of its competition. There's much to like. Brad Pitt steals the show among the primary characters. John Malkovich remains the world's finest ranter. George Clooney is serviceable, if a little overly twitchy. But the normally outstanding Frances McDormand is actually the film's surprise liability.

The highlight of the film, as real critics have cited, is the two CIA officers played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons. In fact, the movie's final scene sees this modern-day Rosencrantz and Gildenstern offer a such a clinic in comedic timing, it almost forgives the increasingly sketchy 45 minutes that come before it. This, coupled with two particular scenes with a narrow-eyed Brad Pitt, is worth the price of admission.

Almost.

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